Weeks have passed since the 2020 U.S. presidential election, yet the ferment in politics continues in Washington as outgoing President Donald Trump refuses to concede power and facilitate an orderly, peaceful transition. The broader transition to a new arrangement in the White House will also be impacted by the extent to which the bureaucracy cooperates with the team of President-elect Joe Biden. Professor Karen Hult of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and a board member of the White House Transition Project, spoke to Narayan Lakshman about the risks and opportunities within the opaque presidential transition process.
Why are presidential transitions important, what are the different dimensions of this process – in terms of budgets, personnel, infrastructure – and what are the biggest potential challenges they face?
A presidential transition is always important because it is that time when the U.S. is moving the entire working Executive, including people in the White House, Cabinet members and executive branch departments and agencies. Those people are transitioning out of power, and a new group is coming in, and that is difficult to do for logistical reasons, but also because of policy differences. Transitions become more difficult, perhaps not surprisingly, when an incumbent president loses an election, as President Trump did in this case, and when the political parties are turning over, as also happened in this case. All of this make the transition of power fraught and risks conflict and differences on both sides.
Now, having said that, one also imagines that we have done this through U.S. history. What that means is that is there are some norms and practices, as well as some means, in place. There was no formal transition organisation written into U.S. law until 1963. In fact, even before the election starts in the U.S. currently, there are many transition processes going on. The transition of the U.S. presidency starts during every election year. Transition councils are put together before the election and go into effect through the spring and into the summer. Once each party has held its convention or comes close to nominating its candidates, then each of those candidates gets some limited funding and some office space in Washington DC to undertake the beginning of the transition process.
But the full transition, after the election, also must be prepared, that is, a President-elect has to be declared. That has taken a lot of time, this time around. It ended on [November 23] evening, when Emily Murphy of the General Services Administration ascertained Mr. Biden was elected. What difference does that make? In the U.S. context, when a president leaves office, most of the White House staff that supports the president in policy debates and in structuring decision-making, also leaves with the president. The president also has about 4,000 appointees throughout the broad executive branch of government, including the Department of Defence, Department of the Treasury, Department of State, and so on. The new president has to be prepared for putting people in places in those positions, as well as figure out what it is that the current administration has been doing, what programmes are in place, and what challenges are there for the President-elect to take care of.
Right now, the U.S., like much of the global economy, is having many difficulties. We are thinking that there will be a vaccine rollout, one hopes sometime in December. President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris need to have a sense of what is going on in preparation for those things. The sheer logistics of that, as well as getting people in place, having them get through the necessary background checks and security clearances – all of that must take place in a limited amount of time. There are only 75 days between the formal election and the Inauguration on January 20.
President Trump has filed numerous lawsuits challenging the election process across key swing States. Many have been knocked down in the courts. Yet is there a chance that the allocation of electoral college votes to the two candidates will be different from what we expect?
There is always a chance even if it is probably not very likely that there will be much of a difference. In addition, President-elect Biden has currently 306 electoral college votes, so even if one or two State electoral college votes remained in question, that still would give him the formal victory.
There are two additional dates that we should be looking at going forward. Certainly, the legal cases are continuing. But all States must certify their election results to the federal government by December 8, 2020. On December 14, in the arcane U.S. election system, all the electors meet in State capitals around the country and cast their votes for the winner of State’s popular vote. By December 14, then, we will have a good sense of what those electoral college votes are going to be. The next date to pay attention to is January 6, 2021, when the new U.S. Congress, which will be sworn in on January 3, meets formally to count those votes.
A footnote-question: In Georgia, two Senate seat races have gone into runoff elections, likely to be on January 5. How can the new Congress count be sworn in on January 3 if the runoffs are not yet completed?
Well, the new House of Representatives is sworn in on January 3. The Georgia election takes place on January 5. Since Congress needs to count the electoral college votes on January 6, the results of Georgia election should be clear by then. Those new Senators will be sworn in and participate in the counting of the votes.
Do you think there might be institutional resistance to the transition? There was already a delay in the ascertainment of Mr. Biden’s election victory, by General Services Administration chief Emily Murphy.
That is a concern on many people’s minds. This was very close and contentious election. President-elect Biden appears to have won the election by between 6 and 7 million votes and the national popular vote. However, your point is well taken, that there is a fair amount of resistance in the broader public. The potential resistance within the U.S. federal government executive branch is a little bit harder to ascertain. This is going to be a very difficult process for Mr. Trump’s appointees throughout the executive branch and his staff in the White House. But the people who do the work of the transition and prepare for the transition, include those political appointees.
By and large, this is driven by senior career civil servants, who do this as part of their professional lives repeatedly. Many of them take an oath on the Constitution, and they take that oath seriously. What this means is that in preparing the transition, they are prepared to do the best job they can to get the information available to the Biden team to work toward as smooth a transition as possible. Will there be resistance? Presumably, there will be in limited cases. Will there be some slow-walking or delaying of some kinds of activities and responses? Presumably, there will be, and we have had evidence of that in past transitions.
By and large, though, my guess is this will go on as smoothly as possible. There are always hiccups, there clearly will be in this in this period as well.
My broader concern is less inside government resistance and a little bit more regarding the sense of legitimacy outside of government, in Congress as well as among the American public, as well as the questions that this is raising in people’s minds, perhaps all over the world.
Are there any circumstances where this sort of obstructionism might compromise national security of the U.S.?
Certainly, that is possible. That, of course, is what President-elect Biden was expressing concern about, with the slowness of getting the formal transition process started. It was only [on November 24], apparently, that Mr. Biden finally had access to the President’s daily brief, which is the intelligence information that is prepared overnight for the president. Although Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has had access to some of that intelligence information, as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she was forbidden by statute from sharing that with the President-elect. It is that kind of slowness, that kind of lapse of information being communicated, and then being communicated in credible ways, that could produce some issues related to national security, Homeland Security, and certainly with the logistics of moving forward with the vaccine, addressing the pandemic in the U.S. and around the world. This is a very fraught period. Some have called this transition process in the U.S. the most perilous time in the shift of power.
Please talk to U.S. a bit about how the effectiveness of the transition process will impinge upon two of the biggest policy issues in the U.S. now: the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, and U.S. economic recovery planning.
Any time that one faces a delay, that can make a big difference [in policy response]. It looks as though some of the movements that have been taking place very recently, the nomination, for example, of the incoming treasury secretary, Janet Yellen will help assuage some of those concerns, almost immediately when the formal transition process began taking place. We are hearing that there have been over 20 meetings set up between the Biden-Harris transition teams, and the agency transition teams. That probably bodes well for people getting those initial contacts and trying to make the first moves in undertaking that kind of relationship. The other thing to remember is that while all of this is going on in the background, it is still the case that President Trump remains President of the U.S. That means then, that he can take, and has been taking, decisions on a whole range of things. In past transitions, the outgoing president has tended to meet with the incoming president to discuss those decisions, and in some cases, defer the decisions until the new president is inaugurated. So far, that has not happened. One might expect that would happen over the next couple of days.
It looks like the Senate races in Georgia may only be decided by early January 2021. If Republicans hold on to the Senate, what role will the transition process have engaging them as critical influencers of policy alongside the future Biden administration?
Some of that outreach has been going on, even before the formal post-election transition process started. We have reports that President-elect Biden himself in some cases, but more importantly, members of his team, have been reaching out to and working with Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate. But in addition, there have been efforts to reach out to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who it looks as though will remain in that position after the Georgia [Senate runoff] elections. There are efforts underway to open discussions with [Congressional Republicans] and get at least some initial temperature readings on the sorts of nominations the Senate would be likely to confirm, and maybe movement before Inauguration in moving forward with a relief package.
Some of that is helped by the incoming White House Chief of Staff, Ron Klain, who has a long history working in the Senate, as well as in various places around the executive branch. Those existing relationships might be among the things that the Biden administration is hoping to lean on to ease those relationships.
One final point is that the initial cabinet nominations appear to have been positioned to be acceptable to a good number of Republicans in the Senate. That is the complaint among the progressives in the Democratic Party, that they view many of the nominees as being not quite open enough to more radical changes. Apparently, the Biden-Harris administration is making the decision, but these people must be confirmed in the U.S. Senate. What is going on in the Senate, especially if it stays Republican is always in the back of the minds of the folks in the transition team.
Looking forward to how the Biden administration might work, do you think they will return to business as usual in terms of the Democratic Party values and agenda, or win broader acceptability they might pivot towards something else?
There will be at least two different streams. In terms of the legislative agenda, there will be there will be an effort to build small majorities in both houses of Congress. That means moving away from what some may view as standard Democratic values. Simultaneously, in terms of appointments within the larger executive, and actions that the President-elect takes, in terms of the executive order and other things that presidents can do administratively, there will be an effort to open up and follow the values that have been put forward by some on the Democratic side. I would expect to see right away that there will be very quick movements to attempt to re-join the Paris accord, to at least work re-joining the Open Skies agreement, and to do a whole variety of things to reengage other parts of the world. I also think that a very strong signal has been sent by naming former Secretary of State John Kerry as the President’s Special Envoy on Climate Change. That, to me is a poignant marker, both symbolically about presidential priorities, but probably in terms of early actions that the U.S. is poised to take. Some of that, but not all of it, will involve Congress.