As the Trump administration refuses to initiate statutorily required steps, Biden will tap into vast government experience.
While the Trump administration continues to withhold executive branch materials and access normally afforded to presidential election winners, President-elect Joe Biden and his transition team are pushing forward with the process they say is only partially encumbered due to their deep familiarity with the inner-workings of government.
Biden has said on multiple occasions since the election that President Trump’s refusal to concede and the failure of his top appointee at the General Services Administration to “ascertain” that Biden has won would not impede his administration from hitting the ground running on day one. Ascertainment is a necessary step to allow the former vice president’s teams to deploy to agencies around the country and receive the most up-to-date national security briefings.
“We’re just going to proceed the way we have,” Biden said last week. “We’re going to do exactly what we’d be doing if he had conceded and said we’ve won, which we have, and so there’s nothing really changing.”
Working to Biden’s advantage as he seeks to proceed despite the transition uncertainty is the decades of government experience held by many of his top transition officials, including those on his agency review teams. Those groups cannot yet meet with career officials at federal agencies for briefings on their biggest problems and most recent activities, but most will not need lessons on the general functions of government offices.
“While our agency review teams can't communicate directly with agencies, many of them have served relatively recently and understand what the needs are and have an understanding of how we can work together to address the threats to the degree we have the information we need,” said Jen Psaki, a senior adviser to Biden’s transition, on Friday.
The officials leading governmentwide management agencies, for example, all have experience at their respective organizations during the Obama administration. The Labor Department team is headed up by Chris Lu, a former deputy secretary there and the executive director of Obama’s transition in 2008. Ur Jaddou, the head of the Homeland Security Department team, was chief counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Craig Fugate, who led the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also serves on that team. Virtually every team is full of officials with similar résumés.
The transition has already identified 600 appointees for Biden to place into agencies, said Yohannes Abarham, another adviser. The review teams prior to the election prepared for the current situation and are now meeting with additional former government officials to develop a firmer understanding of how each agency operates, the advisers said. The entire transition is led by long-time Biden aide and former Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del.—for whom a key piece of transition law is named—and Jeff Zients, who served as a top official at the Office of Management and Budget under Obama.
“The biggest thing that ameliorates the gaps right now is that Biden is the most experienced person ever to be elected president,” David Marchick, director of the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service, told Government Executive's podcast “GovExec Daily” on Monday. “His team is among the most experienced ever to be ready to take office. His transition team, led by Ted Kaufman, Yohannes Abraham, Jeff Zients and others, is the most organized, the most ready, the most senior transition team ever.”
Ed DeSeve, a special adviser in the Obama White House who, along with Biden, spearheaded the effort to spend money Congress had allocated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to stimulate the economy, told Government Executive earlier this year Biden’s familiarity with government and ability to navigate bureaucratic mazes would help him avoid having to play catch up in office.
“If you looked at the way he could interact with the State Department organizationally, he knew what the deputy assistant secretary of yada yada yada did,” DeSeve said, adding, “He didn’t know everything, but when he didn’t know something, he knew who to call and who to talk to about it [to] get the best advice along the way.”
Psaki said Biden would lean on career civil servants “at the heart and soul of government” and “tap into his wealth of contacts on these issues” to ensure he is ready to govern.
Also aiding Biden will be systemic changes in the transition process. A 2010 law forced agencies to designate career officials for transition work, and to provide updates to Congress on those efforts over the last several months. Marchick's Partnership for Public Service has created transition guides laying out a methodology for review teams to collect information. This will help Biden's teams, said John Kamensky, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government who served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, even as they are kept in the dark about an array of operational details. Kamensky highlighted as outstanding mysteries to Biden's teams policies agencies are preparing to include in their fiscal 2022 budget proposals, what Senior Executive Service roles have been designated for political appointments, information about certain pending regulatory actions and data underlying federal offices' strategic reviews.
The transition team's government experience "does help in some ways," Kamensky said, "but the inability to have access to things that are considered predecisional makes it more difficult." While there are significant unknowns, he added, "The good thing is they will at least know the questions to ask...they know the broad frameworks."
Marchick praised Biden for doing “exactly what he should be doing” by continuing to move forward with the transition. While he noted Biden is being shut out from intelligence briefings, updates on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and specific information prepared by career transition officials at agencies across government, he explained there are several steps the president-elect can still take to make personnel decisions, engage with foreign leaders, develop policy and talk to lawmakers and other stakeholders.
The Center for Presidential Transition’s own team has been working for nearly a year with career officials throughout government to help them prepare for their statutory responsibilities once an ascertainment is made.
“They’re very buttoned up,” Marchick said. “They’ve done a really good job. They’re ready. They just need to be given the green light.”
Once that happens, he said, the work he has seen Biden’s team put in will help flatten any learning curve new administrations typically experience.
“Transition teams in the future will be studying what Biden did because they’re so organized, they’re so ready,” he said. “He was so focused on being ready to go on Jan. 20. The fact that they are so experienced and so organized will mitigate the damage, but every day that goes by, the damage increases.”