The 2016 edition of the presidential transition is unfolding earlier, and with more seriousness and less frenzy than past changeovers, in part because the law President Obama signed in March “set up a new infrastructure and creates a formality that gives agencies a chance to have early conversations on how resources will be used.”
That’s according to Tim Horne, a key player as director of presidential transition at the General Services Administration. Horne spoke Thursday at Fedstival, a series of Washington, D.C., events hosted by Government Executive Media Group.
GSA’s own role has “evolved” since the first transition law passed in 1963, he said, “moving from its core mission of providing space and services to a position of being in the mix.”
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Not only did the agency provide office space on Aug. 1 for both the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump transition operations, but its leader will make the momentous call to the next president-elect the morning after Election Day to offer new funding for salaries, travel and procurement as well as office space for the first time inside GSA’s own headquarters.
GSA then will begin providing six months of transition help for the outgoing president while simultaneously planning the Inauguration with the Inaugural Committee, the Defense Department and the National Park Service, said Horne, a veteran of three presidential transitions. Finally, the freshly empowered GSA will fulfill an interagency coordinator role and provide funding for new appointee orientation activities.
Panelists agreed that the process this year promises to be effective because its formality forced players to begin early to minimize the inevitable chaos soon to come. Both the Trump and Clinton campaigns “are taking the transition seriously,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University political scientist who has done extensive research on transitions. “The Trump team is larger, and needs to do policy because they plan to overturn a lot of the current administration’s orders,” she said. Clinton’s policy pronouncements are already being generated from the campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters.
The 1963 transition law authorized GSA to provide money and services, but not the kinds of information the transition teams, appointees and agency staff require, Kumar added. The 2010 Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act and its later update “memorialized” what is regarded as the successful transition executed by President George W. Bush’s team bringing in Obama's team. It “established that transition team’s work is necessary before an election, and it’s not hubris to be planning,” Kumar said.
While that earlier law declared that the White House “can create” a transition counsel and an agency directors, the 2016 update—taking lessons from the also-admired 2012 readiness effort by losing GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s team—specified that the White House “shall create” those bodies, she said.
Another difference this year, said Ed DeSeve, a state and federal agency veteran who co-chairs Transition 2016, a project of the National Academy of Public Administration, is that the Obama Office of Management and Budget will not be sending up a fiscal 2018 budget this winter. That means the new team will have 60 days to create a budget, he said. He recommended that the incoming administration also get an early start on the required agency strategic plans under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act.
Also distinguishing the current transition from others is the need for the new administration to play off of the lame-duck session of a divided Congress coming in December and to meet with appropriators, said Paul Bock, the Senate congressional liaison for the 2008 Obama-Biden transition now a law partner with Holland and Knight. “There will be lots of pressure in agencies and the campaigns to get things done in the lame duck,” which has an unusually large number of bills that weren’t finalized in the regular session.
A key piece of advice from Horne was for new political appointees to rely on career employees and Senior Executive Service members to “learn what’s going on in the agency to leverage and build on successes, not to come in and say, ‘I want to turn the place upside down.’” Many career feds “feel like a puppy with a tennis ball,” being ordered around. “But they shouldn’t be surprised,” Horne added. “Our job is to help the politicals accomplish their goals, not to say whether something’s a bad idea or good idea, unless it’s unethical or illegal,” he clarified. “It’s normal to get annoyed, but your job is to make it smooth.”
The advice was echoed by Christopher Lu, the current deputy Labor secretary who in 2008 headed up Obama’s transition. “For the overwhelming number of employees, the job doesn’t change on Jan. 20,” he said. But it does change for the senior leadership, who are under multiple pressures. “The success of political appointees is directly tied to their ability to engage the career people,” he said. Agency handling of the 2009 Recovery Act “couldn’t have happened without career employees,” Lu said, stressing that hiring the right people and providing them with needed technology are essential to governing, not just the transition.
Lu said it was important at the Labor Department, which has as many as 15-20 main units, for career people preparing briefing materials to “be strategic,” because the "day-to-day triage” in a crisis can overshadow major goals. He recommended shorter, candid accounts of key decisions leaders will face in the first 30-60-90 days. Lu said he plans “a candid conversation with my successor on the opportunities and challenges, and where the bodies were buried along the way.”
DeSeve stressed that “Chaos can be good. Out of chaos often comes clarity. It can be managed. There will be an unpleasant surprise, particularly in vetting,” he predicted. “The time of a new president is precious, given the tugs and pulls.” So it’s essential for the transition team to have “a cadre of trusted people who can hit the ground running.”
“Personnel is policy,” added Anita McBride, a White House veteran of the Reagan and both Bush presidencies and now executive-in-residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. The mostly political people selected to serve at the White House and the mid-level appointees “are the face of the new administration and are critical to its success,” she said. Their view and the campaign’s promises may not square with the view inside agencies, which is why communication is vital.
She recommended “nimble, strategic” thinking on innovations—such as having interns in the West Wing—to find ways to “prove to the American people” that their interests are being served. McBride warned, however, the policies against hiring lobbyists—embraced by Obama and, according to some reports, Hillary Clinton—could make things harder. “Some of the difficulty is self-inflicted,” McBride said, noting that much of the experienced talent has worked as lobbyists, while young people, less experienced, “are easier to vet.”
Bock agreed that “the appointments process if rough, and has gotten worse every four years. “It’s the nature of investigations—the [Senate] chairman and ranking member want answers to an unbelievable range of questions.” He recounted the tale of woe that befell University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, whom Obama had brought in during the 2009 financial crisis to join his Council of Economic Advisers. “All of his belongings,” Bock recalled, “were on a truck from Chicago when staff called to say they wanted his tax return from six years ago.”
This story was updated to clarify a comment by Labor Deputy Secretary Christopher Lu.