Heightened security is seen in front of the U.S. Capitol on the morning of Joe Biden's Inauguration as the 46th President of the United States on Jan.20, 2021. The mall was closed to the general public due to safety concerns.

Heightened security is seen in front of the U.S. Capitol on the morning of Joe Biden's Inauguration as the 46th President of the United States on Jan.20, 2021. The mall was closed to the general public due to safety concerns. Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Agencies would see sped up transition timelines and more resources for career officials under bipartisan bill

The Senate measure would mark the latest in a series of updates to make presidential transitions more orderly and efficient.

Federal agencies will have to speed up their presidential transition preparations and ensure they are prepared for extended periods without a known electoral winner under a new law introduced on Friday by a bipartisan pair of senators. 

The Agency Preparation for Transitions Act, put forward by Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, aims to provide greater resources to career employees at federal agencies tasked with preparing potential future administrations. Agencies already face a slew of requirements in drafting materials and answering questions from campaign transition teams, but the new measure looks to speed up some of the established timelines for those interactions and boost communication between the White House and agency transition teams. 

“Effective presidential transitions are a key pillar of our democracy, ensuring that the government can continue serving the American people without disruption,” Peters said. “Improving the transition process has been a routine and bipartisan undertaking for decades, and this bill will take important steps to continue strengthening our democracy.”

The measure would clarify and add to the responsibilities of the federal transition coordinator within the General Services Administration, who would going forward be appointed two years before any presidential election. Among the changes, the coordinator would face additional requirements to prepare agencies for their transition tasks. The measure would bump up the first meeting of the agency transition council to nine months prior to the election and require it to meet once per month. It would create new paths for identifying lessons learned, require more participation in transition planning from career employees within the White House and create a new transition council made up of small and independent agencies. 

Some of the new guidance and timeline requirements are designed to improve the transition process “in times of uncertainty,” such as during a national emergency or when the election outcome is delayed, the lawmakers said. Agencies would receive new guidance for how to approach briefings when no sole winner is immediately deemed apparent and campaigns would more quickly receive access to briefing materials from agencies under such a circumstance. Congress in 2022 passed the Electoral Count and Presidential Transition Improvement Act in an attempt to create a more orderly process than then-President elect Biden faced in 2020 when President Trump refused to concede his election loss. The bill would also create new requirements for cybersecurity protections and records management in the lead up to an election, with the goal of the latter provisions to ensure the National Archives and Records Administration oversees a more robust records retention process than occurred under Trump. 

The measure would also require the Government Accountability Office to review the effectiveness of the most recent transition every four years. 

“Facilitating an orderly transition of executive power is of critical importance for any democratic nation,” said Collins, who also facilitated the passage of the 2022 transition law update. “By clarifying transition timelines, improving coordination, and enhancing congressional oversight, this bipartisan legislation would improve the resilience of our democratic processes.”

In recent decades, Congress has on multiple occasions reformed the transition process to make it more formal and organized. A 2010 law forced agencies to designate career officials for transition work, and to provide updates to Congress on those efforts throughout the last several months before an election. A 2015 law requires the president to establish a White House coordinating committee and council of agency transition directors six months prior to the election. The 2019 Presidential Transition Enhancement Act tasked GSA and transition teams with entering into memoranda of understanding by Sept. 1 of an election year to detail the services the agency will provide, clarified that GSA can offer transition services for up to 60 days after inauguration and created ethics plans for transition team members. 

The Partnership for Public Service also maintains a Center for Presidential Transition that has created transition guides laying out a methodology for candidate “review teams”—which deploy into agencies after elections—to collect information. It has similar guides for agencies. Max Stier, the partnership’s president, praised the new legislation from Peters and Collins, saying it continued in the tradition of gleaning lessons from the previous transition. 

“Their suggested changes will ensure that effective transition planning across the government occurs well before day one of an administration and reinforce the principle that nonpartisan planning, for a transition to a first or second presidential term, is in the best interest of the American people,” Stier said. 

Transition law was most recently updated when President Biden signed the 2022 Electoral Count and Presidential Transitional Improvement Act into law, which allows for more than one presidential candidate to receive transition resources if there is a time period when the result of the election is “reasonably in doubt.” It established new metrics for the GSA administrator to use when determining when an election winner exists and details that official's duties in reporting to Congress whenever neither candidate has conceded. Congress approved the law with bipartisan support after President Trump’s refusal to concede in 2020 left then-GSA Administrator Emily Murphy without clear direction on the “ascertainment” process—the formal name for GSA’s recognition of a presidential election winner—and how to distribute transition resources. 

Murphy did not ascertain a winner until Nov. 23, 2020, more than two weeks after all major news outlets declared Biden the president-elect. The executive director of Biden’s transition went on to say that while many agencies and departments were working to share information with them, there were some “pockets of recalcitrance,” including at the Defense Department. In April 2021, then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki blamed the Trump administration’s lack of cooperation during the transition in part for the delay in releasing the Biden administration’s budget preview.

While still a member of the transition team, Psaki said career officials “have been cooperative and helpful” and the issues were isolated to political staff. During the delay in the transition process, Biden's team attempted to work around its lack of agency access by relying on the expertise of former government officials, making personnel decisions and developing early policies. Biden's team did not have access to "predecisional" information, such as preparations for the next budget cycle, pending regulatory actions and data underlying federal offices' strategic reviews.