White House Transition Survivors Regret Neglecting Congress

The candidates’ teams must begin now to prepare for the next crisis.

In offering advice to the emerging teams for the next administration, former White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley this week engaged in some self-criticism.

“I regret that we didn’t use Congress more, to meet the delegations after their trips” for debriefings, said the adviser to George W. Bush and a veteran of several transitions. “The [candidate] transition teams should be free now to start working with Congress.”

Hadley, now chairman of the U.S. Institute of Peace, spoke with other former governing professionals at a forum convened Tuesday by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service as part of its ongoing effort to advocate for a smoother bipartisan transition process. “I’ve been on both the receiving end and the handoff end, and coming in is much more fun than going out,” Hadley said.

“Each new administration thinks they’re writing on a new piece of paper—a transformational moment,” he added. “But be humble. Wait six months and learn the organization first,” he cautioned incoming presidential appointees. They should serve as intermediaries between the president’s goals and the expertise already in government, Hadley said. Too often, politicos think civil servants “will work 120 percent for the new team, but you can’t expect that.”

The forum came two months after President Obama signed a new law designed to clarify roles and facilitate a bipartisan transition. And it came the same day the House Appropriations panel proposed transition-related funding for the Executive Office of the President ($7.6 million); the General Services Administration ($9.5 million); the National Archives and Records Administration ($4.9 million); and for emergency planning and security in the District of Columbia ($25 million).

The partnership’s panel was moderated by Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of Defense for policy and now CEO of the Center for a New American Security. “It’s hard to imagine a more volatile environment,” she said, referring to ISIS, al Qaeda, the Middle East refugee crisis, a resurgent Russia, a rising China and climate change. 

Flourney suggested the new president appoint a national security team with clear roles and expectations that “doesn’t waste a lot of time with unnecessary friction.” She recalled running Obama’s transition team at the Defense Department and entering the White House to see a sign reading, “no ego, no drama, this is not about you.”

Former Rep. Jane Harmon, D-Calif., an intelligence specialist and now director and CEO of the Wilson Center, echoed Hadley’s thoughts on White House-Congress consultations. “There have been missed opportunities with this administration,” she said, noting that it is important to talk to people in the opposite party. “Terrorists don’t check our party identification before they blow us up,” she added, “so the less talk about the other party and why it’s to blame, the more progress.”

Harmon said Congress worked better when members stayed in Washington on weekends, their children went to the same schools, and the members had dinner and got to know people in the other party. “If you meet regularly and they know you, it’s hard to demonize you,” she said. “A skillful president will pull in former members of Congress and staff [for his own staff] and use them as a force multiplier.”

The next administration, Harmon suggested, should move away from the Obama model, which appears, she said, to allow the White House to dominate agencies on big decisions. “This demoralizes agencies and fails to leverage their talent,” she said.

The current confirmation process, plagued by long delays by lawmakers that can discourage talent from serving, is a sign that “the business model of Congress is broken,” Harmon added. “If all we do is game things and block the other side for a 30-second ad, we’re doomed as a country,” she said. “Toxic partisanship and willful ignorance are national security threats.”

John Negroponte, longtime diplomat and former director of the Office of National Intelligence, stressed the value of continuity in the intelligence community. “The sooner the intelligence officers brief the candidates, the better,” he said, “and the time for them to ask questions is now, while they have time.”

Negroponte also recommended that new officials take advantage of the expertise in the Human Resources departments, “the most underestimated functions in government,” he called them.

Having been confirmed by the Senate nine times as an ambassador or executive branch leader, Negroponte wondered why Congress, after two or three confirmations of the same person, can’t simply “waive it, like an E-Z pass.”

Hadley said agency preparations “have come a long way” since the Ford to Carter changeover in 1980, when he was invited to stay over under the Democrats. “The first day I walked in, every piece of paper was gone and every safe drawer was completely empty,” he said. There were only three staff left, and “no record of what was going on.”

Nowadays, Hadley said, “the number of number of world conflicts tells you that you can literally walk in and within hours of taking office be in the midst of a crisis.”