Senate Passes Bill to Smooth Presidential Transitions

President Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009. The bill would codify some of the preparations the George W. Bush administration made in 2008 for that transition. President Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009. The bill would codify some of the preparations the George W. Bush administration made in 2008 for that transition. Paul Hakimata Photography /

Regardless of who next wins the White House, both parties have an interest in assuring a smooth and well planned transfer of power, as demonstrated in the Senate’s unanimous vote on Thursday to pass the Ted Kaufman and Michael Leavitt Presidential Transitions Improvements Act.

Named for a previous Democratic senator from Delaware and a holder of two Cabinet posts under President George W. Bush, the bill is aimed at helping future presidential candidates navigate the transition process while clarifying the nonpartisan support role of the General Services Administration.

“The peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next is one of the hallmarks of our democracy,” said lead co-sponsor Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “It is also an enormous undertaking, with complexities that require months of planning in order to be successful.”

Ranking member Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said in a statement, “Given the challenges facing our country, both at home and abroad, Congress has a critical responsibility to help ensure an orderly changeover from one administration to the next. This bill will help ensure that when future presidents take the oath of office, their administrations are as prepared as possible to hit the ground running from day one.”

The bill would require that a White House-led senior-level interagency transition council be in place at least six months before Election Day, and that a standing, working-level interagency group develop an integrated strategy for transitions, the sponsors said. It would mandate that GSA designate a career employee to serve as federal transition coordinator to support the incoming president and his or her team. The bill also would also ensure that agencies designate a senior career official for each major component or subcomponent to oversee the transition at least six months before Election Day. And it would expand training for incoming presidential appointees.

If the bill were enacted (no House companion bill has been introduced), individuals who will serve in an “acting” capacity in senior political positions during a transition must be named not later than September 15 of a presidential election year.

The Senate’s vote was welcomed by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, whose research on transitions helped shape the legislation. “The peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next is a hallmark of our democracy; it is also a time of vulnerability, as one leadership team exits and new leadership steps in,” the group statement said in urging the House to follow suit when it returns from August recess. “Our nation's security depends on advance preparations and a seamless transition. The U.S. Senate got a jump on early planning with today's passage of S.1172.”

Political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar, author of a new book Before the Oath: How George W. Bush and Barack Obama Managed a Transfer of Power, said the bill would “put into law the kind of preparations that the George W. Bush administration did in 2008 and make them permanent,” with a few new ones. “Coordination is key to a transition because government has grown and the number of positions a president can now appoint has grown over the year as well,” she told Government Executive. “This is particularly important after a president has served four years and is running for reelection,” she added. Such presidents typically don’t do much preparation for the transition because they’re “so intent on winning. This can really make a difference.”

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