Trump-Biden Transition Revealed Weaknesses That Should be Addressed, Report Finds
Suggestions include clarifying OMB’s budget and regulatory roles during transfers of power, and making fewer steps contingent upon GSA’s ascertainment of election results.
The unprecedented transfer of power from the Trump to Biden administration exposed “areas of fragility” in the transition process that should be addressed before the next changeover, according to a new report.
The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition and Boston Consulting Group released a report on Wednesday night that analyzes the most recent presidential transition of power, which has been a tradition since John Adams succeeded George Washington in 1797. This past time, planning for a possible transition and the transition itself were complicated by not only the coronavirus pandemic, but President Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the election, which led to a delay in “ascertainment” by the General Services Administration. There was also the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 as lawmakers were taking up certification of the election (which led to Trump’s impeachment in the House) and the runoff Senate elections in Georgia in January that delayed determining who would control that chamber.
“The events of 2020-21 revealed longstanding areas of fragility in the presidential transition process,” said the report. “While the Trump White House and federal agencies worked hard to meet the statutory transition planning requirements during the pre-election period, Trump’s doubts about the integrity of the election and, in some instances, the lack of cooperation from his administration after the election exposed areas where norms and precedents were not enough to ensure a seamless transfer of power.”
The report goes over the Biden and Trump teams’ transition planning, various laws that govern the transition process (which have been strengthened in the wake of the 2000 election and Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks), and complications based on the unprecedented circumstances the last time around. At the end, there are recommendations and best practices for Congress, the White House, federal agencies, transition teams and non-government organizations, as well as a summary of the ongoing challenges they face.
One suggestion is that Congress “reaffirm and clarify” the role that the Office of Management and Budget plays in the transition due to its core involvement in governmentwide management, the budget process and rulemaking.
“Contrary to past practice, the Trump White House did not believe it had an obligation to help the incoming Biden team on the budget during the transition,” said the report. In addition to inhibiting the Biden team’s development of its budget, it also “hindered governmentwide planning for regulations and rulemaking.”
Last spring, the Biden White House was delayed in submitting its initial budget preview, in part due to some “impactful intransigence from the outgoing political appointees” during the transition, said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki during a briefing in April. “We had some cooperation from the career staff, but we didn’t have all of the information that we needed.” The preview was released on April 9 and the full budget on May 28.
Treating OMB as a “service provider” like the FBI, Office of Government Ethics, and National Archives and Records Administration for the transition “would help incoming teams develop their agendas and prepare for governing,” the report said.
Another recommendation is for Congress to consider reducing the number of transition services that are contingent upon GSA’s ascertainment, such as information sharing. The Partnership and Boston Consulting Group acknowledged it would create a complex dynamic because agencies have to balance sensitive information and ensure the president-elect is ready to govern; however, this would mitigate any effects if there is ever a delay in ascertainment again.
“Most officials in the Trump administration cooperated with the Biden transition team,” said the report. “However, leaders in a few prominent agencies were not accommodating. The Biden team claimed they were unable to get valuable information related to intelligence and the budget.”
One last recommendation, which the Partnership has advocated for some time, is reducing the number of positions that require Senate confirmation. While Biden was not unique in facing challenges in getting his confirmations through the Senate, he submitted more nominees than his recent predecessors did, the report noted. “This is the single change that will most dramatically improve the ability of new presidents to put their teams in place as quickly as possible,” the report said.
Additional complications last year were that after the runoff elections, the Senate didn’t come to a power sharing agreement until February 3 and the Senate was also dealing with COVID-19 relief negotiations and Trump’s second impeachment trial.
As a result of the pandemic, much of the transition planning and follow-through was conducted virtually and the report said that helped with work efficiency and recruiting a more diverse staff. This could be an option for transitions going forward, but future transition teams need to be aware of “cybersecurity requirements and administrative challenges,” said the report.
Valerie Smith Boyd, director of the Center for Presidential Transition, told Government Executive on Thursday in her first media interview in the role that, “the Biden team employed a lot of best practices that we’ve developed over time and had creative thinking about how to address some of the new challenges [last] year; there was some good work in the Trump White House that has been under reported” as a result of Trump’s challenges to the election result; and “the strength of the federal workforce made this as successful as it was.”
In the next year, the Partnership is going to be working on “process reforms,” as mentioned in the report, she said.
Thursday is the one-year anniversary of Biden’s inauguration and, thus, the end of the transition.