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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

GSA Denies Bush Transition Aid, Citing Legal Battle

November 28, 2000|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — George W. Bush's team tried relentlessly Monday to act like an incoming administration. The Clinton administration, which still holds the keys to the White House, tried even harder to ignore them.

The result? A collision of images that seemed strange, even by this election's standards.

It started early Monday, when the Bush team asked for access to the taxpayer-funded transition offices that are to be used by the president-elect. The General Services Administration refused, explaining it was best to wait until the legal challenges in Florida had run their course.

At that point, Dick Cheney, Bush's running mate, announced the campaign would form a nonprofit organization, solicit contributions and open its own transition office.

"You know, these are unprecedented circumstances," Cheney said. "There is no experience that I've had . . . like this.

"I worked for Jerry Ford when we took over the White House as Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. That was a strange transition."

Standing in front of 14 American flags during a press briefing, Cheney announced that the Bush transition, which he is heading, first will identify potential administration appointees and help those people slog through the dozens of forms required by the FBI for security clearances.

Although the GSA's decision is "disappointing," Cheney said, it is not unmanageable. The Bush team will open offices somewhere in Washington in the next few days, he said, using contributions from individuals of no more than $5,000 each.

Cheney named Clay Johnson--a friend of Bush's from his Yale days and currently his chief of staff in Austin--as executive director of the transition, and campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer as press spokesman.

But when Andrew J. Card Jr., Bush's choice for chief of staff, phoned the White House on Monday to confer with John Podesta--the current occupant of that office--his call was not returned.

Transitions Often Rushed, Risky

Even in the best of circumstances, presidential transitions are rushed and risky affairs:

Security clearances drag on and sometimes fail to uncover problematic details--such as nannies' being paid under the table (as happened with Clinton's first choice for attorney general, Zoe Baird) and past drug use (in the case of Douglas H. Ginsburg, who was nominated by President Reagan to the Supreme Court).

Number-crunchers hurrying to prepare the president-elect's first budget proposal by the Feb. 1 deadline have been known to overlook some agencies' needs.

And the flood of resumes from thousands of job-seekers and the reams of paper from lobbyists, consultants, interest groups and academics can overwhelm even the most capable administrators.

But the transition that the Bush team is pushing forward strains the bounds of anything this town has experienced before.

The GSA, the federal government's office manager, has taken on a key role. According to the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, the GSA has the authority to "ascertain the apparent winner" of an election before allocating office space and funding. The wording was designed to allow transitions to go forward even before the electoral college meets to anoint the president-elect.

GSA to Await Legal Victor

But GSA administrator Dave Barram said he won't make a move to free up the 90,000 square feet of office space and the $5.3 million allocated by Congress for the president-elect until the fight is out of the courts and one candidate concedes.

"Who could have anticipated this?" asked Paul Light of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, who has spent several years trying to anticipate every possible problem that could crop up in a presidential transition.

"If this were a Republican in the White House, not Bill Clinton, I can assure you that the transition office keys would be turned over today. There's a little bit of politics in this, and the idea that the GSA is confused as to who the winner is is a bit of a stretch," Light said. "But they also have every right to exercise their discretion."

President Clinton told reporters Monday that the White House was not involved in denying transition money to Bush.

"There is a procedure . . . and I think the General Services Administration believes that it cannot offer transition assistance to both [Bush and Al Gore], which is what I would otherwise be inclined to do," Clinton said. "And I think they're doing what they think the law requires."

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Times staff writer Robert A. Rosenblatt contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A Transition Checklist

Since August both teams have been preparing for a transition to the presidency, but the real transition process has not yet begun because of legal challenges. The transition process includes:

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1. Gaining keys to the transition offices and the $5.3 million in funds from the General Services Administration (GSA)

2. Appointing a transition personnel director

3. Inauguration planning; plan new administration budget

4. Staffing an administration; more than 1,000 require Senate confirmation, 2,000 others do not.

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Leadership posts that require Senate confirmation:

A 160 part-time positions, such as the Postal Service Board of Governors: 15%

B 130 regulatory positions, including the Securities and Exchange Commission: 12%

C 187 U.S. attorneys and marshals: 17%

D 330 positions in 14 executive departments, including Cabinet secretaries: 31%

E 120 posts in independent executive agencies, such as NASA: 11%

F 150 ambassadors : 14%

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5. Conducting FBI background investigations for top personnel

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6. Senate confirmation process for certain appointee

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Sources: The Council for Excellence in Government, the Presidential Appointee Initiative, "Passages to the Presidency," by Charles Jones; compiled by SUNNY KAPLAN / Los Angeles Times

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