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Transition Planning Must Begin Now

November 20, 2000|JOHN P. BURKE | John P. Burke is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and author of "Presidential Transitions: From Politics to Practice" (Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2000)

As the ballot counts, recounts and rerecounts continue in Florida (and maybe elsewhere), the clock marking the time until Jan. 20 ticks away. Even under normal circumstances, presidential transitions are hectic, pressure-filled periods. The sheer scope of the task is daunting: filling about 7,000 positions, with more than 1,100 requiring Senate confirmation and 400 to 500 needed just for the core White House staff.

Nor is this just a task of flipping through the Rolodex for names and sorting through stacks of resumes. Once selected, nominees face the hurdles of financial disclosure forms, tax reviews and lengthy FBI background checks. As if that were not enough, filling the new administration with people is only part of the equation. The president-elect and his advisors will face the necessity of organizing a White House staff, turning campaign issues into concrete legislative proposals, shaping those proposals into a coherent agenda, squaring them with a budget of about $1.8 trillion and crafting three major addresses to the nation: an inaugural address followed by the State of the Union and the economic addresses before Congress a few weeks later.

This year, the transition process has been caught in the postelection politics and media battle over the Florida vote. Al Gore's campaign chairman, Bill Daley, has criticized the Bush camp for trying to "presumptively crown themselves the victors" by proceeding to plan a possible Bush presidency. Putting a transition in place, in Daley's view, "runs the risk of dividing the American people and creating a sense of confusion."

Perhaps Daley is right at some level, although it is hard to fathom how the public could be further divided or confused. Yet as far as preparing for an effective presidency, he is dead wrong. One need only look back at the 1992 Clinton transition to see how consequential transitions can be, especially if decisions are made as the clock runs out. To take but one example, Clinton delayed naming a chief of staff until mid-December, and many top White House aides learned of their appointments only days before his inauguration. It was a recipe for disaster: little time to familiarize themselves with their new positions, little effort to determine how the pieces fit together for an effective staff system.

A delayed transition effort can lead to sloppy work that proves costly later on. Again, 1992 is instructive: The push to name an attorney general by Christmas led to the Zoe Baird fiasco, soon to be followed by Kimba Wood, both of whose nomination prospects were scuttled over similar accusations about their domestic help. For several weeks following President Clinton's inauguration, the Justice Department was under the watch of a Republican holdover. How much wider will that problem be if George W. Bush eventually prevails? What personnel problems are likely to crop up this year if weeks are now shaved off the appointment process, everything is put on hold and then there is some haphazard catch-up toward the end?

The transition period is also a time for the president-elect to put in place his political agenda. During the 1988 transition, President-elect Bush and his aides laid the groundwork for resolving the savings and loan crisis. It was something that didn't resonate much with the public at the time, but it was crucial for the country's financial stability. Just ask the Japanese about the consequences of delay and indecision on the solvency of financial institutions. The 1992 transition was crucial in Clinton's move toward an economic plan that would calm Wall Street. Conversely, it was also the source of the ill-conceived gays-in-the-military plan. A delayed transition process is likely to exacerbate policy fiascoes and miss policy opportunities.

The public can tolerate a little transition planning now, even if it means that there will be two transitions with both Bush and Gore "measuring the White House drapes." Yes, their efforts should be carried out with more discretion than is the norm. But let's not let the political rhetoric and media spin about who is prematurely jumping the gun further damage the new presidency.

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