Presidential Transition Alums Laud Longer ‘Runway,’ Formality of 2016 Process

The current Trump and Clinton presidential transition teams are benefiting from three laws enacted over the past six years, new federal funding and a longer timeframe before one of those teams wins and begins preparing for the Inauguration, two veterans of past White House changeovers said on Friday.

Clay Johnson III, who directed the incoming and outgoing transitions for President George W. Bush, and Thomas “Mack” McLarty, President Clinton’s chief of staff who handled the 1992-1993 changeover, told reporters at a National Press Club panel that the 2016 process is off to an unprecedentedly solid start. That’s in no small part, they suggested, due to formalized guidance from a group of nonprofits that includes the event’s sponsor, the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

“Every president promises to be a very effective leader, but there comes a time when candidates must put their team on the field to be effective not as soon as they get to it but right away, at 12:01, a.m. on Jan. 21,” Johnson said. “The American people deserve to have assurance the next present will lead the minute of being sworn in.”

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McLarty added, “We’ve come a long way since President Truman” first approached his successor on transition planning. “We can see a real feeling of patriotism, responsibility and a duty to make it work even if” the incoming team is from another party.  “There was no lack of goodwill” back in 1992, he said. “but there was a lack of order and formality. “

The security briefing the Clinton team received from then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, he added, “goes right to the essence of the transition,” national security. As many have noted, security has become even more of an urgent priority after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the partnership, which has been working to improve transitions for nine years, said, ”Everyone says the transition is peaceful but no one tells you it’s ugly.” Think of a $4 trillion budget, 4 million employees and hundreds of operating units that used to be mastered in 70-odd days at a moment of maximum vulnerability. “Today both campaigns operate at a level of intensity that previously had not existed,” Stier said, alluding to the mandatory White House meetings with officials from both major campaigns and agencies, as well as the transition offices that have been set up with funding by the General Services Administration.

The law’s allowance for funding and staffing up right after the summer conventions, rather than after Election day, “lengthens the runway” for better preparations, Stier said.

Recent incoming administrations, the speakers noted, struggled with a bare-bones staff to fill 4,000 top jobs, 1,100 of which require Senate confirmation and security clearances.  The Partnership set a goal for the eventual election victor to make the top 100 “core” appointments right after Inauguration Day and another 300 by the August recess.

“We had perhaps 30-40 just after Inauguration Day, but only 225 by August,” said Johnson of the George W. Bush team’s arrival in 2001 after a contested election. “The size of the personnel operation is exactly the same size as the previous administration’s—you’re reluctant to expand it because you don’t want to be perceived as big spender,” Johnson said. Plus, the appointments are not “cookie cutter. It’s not just a body in a job and Senate confirmed, but someone ready to do good work, qualified and [skill-]specific, briefed on the agencies and goings on in the world.” He recommended that campaigns expand their hiring capacity, “assuming you’re going to be the President-elect, because you can’t do it all in 73 days.”

Both alums had praise for the federal workforce, Johnson calling agencies “highly motivated to greet their new boss.” But he warned against presenting new political bosses with a “doorstop”-like book on how the agency works, recommending instead a 20-page memo on the major decisions that need to be made in the opening weeks.

McLarty said the “monumental task” in the past was “a magical process done behind a curtain,” one complex enough to “make the average CEO’s head spin.” The key point of “pivoting from campaigning to governing is difficult after working so hard to get elected,” he added. “After you win an election, there’s a tendency to feel a touch of overconfidence.”

A good transition must serve “all stakeholders,” McLarty added. That includes members of Congress; the campaign’s supporters (and opponents, if you want to unify the country, he said); the press; foreign leaders; governors; and the “Washington establishment, whatever that is.”

Johnson said there’s always a balance between fresh blood and tried-and-true experience. “Should you chose the usual suspects or new suspects? The answer is yes,” he joked. “If they’re all veterans, you have a problem; if they’re all rookies, you have a problem; if they’re all lawyers, you have a problem.”

Stier urged incoming leaders to pick people “who understand that running an organization means engaging the federal workforce” rather than “a command and control” approach through 4,000 appointees. “You should bring people together and create a learning system.” The transition is “not a process that has ever been done right.”

News reports in recent days have portrayed the Trump transition operation—chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie but run by Rich Bagger—as larger that Hillary Clinton’s, more focused on policy than Trump’s campaign, but also peopled by industry lobbyists and campaign donors whom some say risk ethics issues.

Stier explained that under the law, the transition operations are private nonprofit organizations that, in addition to receiving government money, solicit to raise about $12 million-$13 million mostly “from donors who’ve already maxed out” in normal election giving. “That’s relatively tiny in relation to what a campaign raises,” he said. “They scramble to engage a broader set of folks in the governing process, engaged, patriotic volunteers.”

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