President Trump delivers his inauguration address on Jan. 20, 2017.

President Trump delivers his inauguration address on Jan. 20, 2017. Patrick Semansky/AP file photo

House Passes Bipartisan Bill to Strengthen Presidential Transition Team Ethics Requirements

The Senate-approved measure also has requirements for GSA and other agencies.

The House on Wednesday passed by voice vote a bipartisan bill to clarify the General Services Administration’s responsibilities during changes in presidential administrations as well as require presidential candidates to publicly release ethics plans for their transitions before the election.

The “2019 Presidential Transition Enhancement Act,” (S. 394), which the Senate passed by unanimous consent in August, would amend the 1963 Presidential Transition Act to improve the transfer of executive power between administrations. If President Trump signs the bill into law, GSA, presidential transition teams and federal agencies will have new obligations in the lead-up to Election Day and during the ensuing change in administrations. 

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which recently launched a center housing presidential transition information and resources, has been following the bill closely as it has helped craft similar legislation in the past, and commended the bipartisan effort.

“This bill will clarify existing legislation and help ensure that transitions, whether to a second-term administration or to a new president, go as smoothly as possible,” said Kristine Simmons, government affairs vice president at the Partnership. “Both the House and Senate made a wise decision to advance this legislation well before the next election. The early timing keeps it nonpartisan and gives federal agencies time to implement it.” 

If enacted, the bill would require GSA and presidential transition teams to enter into a memorandum of understanding by September 1 of an election year that outlines the terms of the agency’s services for the duration of the transition. GSA would have to direct all third-party inquiries for records to a representative in the transition team.

The bill would clarify the services GSA can provide for up to 60 days after the inauguration. The 2015 Presidential Transitions Improvement Act authorized services for up to 180 days after inauguration; however, the Trump team said that 60 days was sufficient.  

In addition to GSA’s requirements, the bill has stipulations for other stakeholders in the transition process. It would require presidential candidates to create and release an ethics plan for their transition team prior to the election. The plans must indicate if there are any current or former lobbyists on the teams, disclose conflicts of interest for the candidate and team members and include a code of ethical conduct that all members must sign.

Sean Moulton, senior policy analyst for the Project on Government Oversight, told Government Executive in August, “POGO is particularly pleased with the requirement for a public ethics plan.” Even though “transition team members are not federal employees,” he said, “their close work with federal agencies, their access to non-public information and their role in structuring a new administration demand that clear ethical standards be set and maintained.”

Also, the bill would mandate that each agency create a succession plan for every senior non-career position by September 15 of an election year. Simmons noted that if the president enacts the legislation and then wins re-election, then this provision would still come into play. 

“Turnover is likely to occur even if the president is re-elected,” she told Government Executive. “The Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition analysis of the last three two-term presidents shows that from Election Day through the first six months of the second term, an average of 43% of secretaries, deputy secretaries and undersecretaries left their jobs.”   

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., introduced the bill in February 2019 after the president’s team and others raised concerns in December 2017 about GSA’s handling of documents and transparency during the Obama-Trump transition

Separately, this could remedy some of the issues that author Michael Lewis wrote about in his 2018 book "The Fifth Risk." He depicted how Trump appointees tossed out briefing books and made limited attempts to build on the knowledge of the Obama appointees. “Thousands of people inside the federal government had spent the better part of a year drawing a vivid picture of it for the benefit of a new administration,” wrote Lewis. Then shortly after Election Day in November 2016, “Across the federal government the Trump people weren’t anywhere to be found. The few places they did turn up, they appeared confused and unprepared.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated in March 2019 that the bill would not have a significant impact on the cost of a transition. The only projected change is that the cost for staff and office space would decrease by less than $500,000 during a transition year. This would be due to the reduced period in which GSA could help a presidential team. 

“Presidential transition legislation has always been nonpartisan because it is about the effective function of our government, not any one presidential candidate,” Simmons said. “This is ‘good government’ legislation that clarifies existing law based on lessons learned in the 2016 transition.”