April 22, 2020

Coronavirus Outbreak Could Make the Upcoming Presidential Transition the Toughest Since the Depression, Nonprofit Says

“I think that the current crisis makes this the most important and, perhaps, challenging transition since 1932,” resource center director says.  

As the upcoming presidential changeover will occur on the heels of the global coronavirus pandemic, a nonprofit clearinghouse for transition information says planning is more important than ever. 

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition launched its 2020 transition efforts last November and has been issuing reports, as recently as Monday, on the importance for transition planning (regardless of whether the sitting president wins or not) based on studies of historical data. Since the novel coronavirus outbreak has forced most federal employees to telework and modified operations for those who must come into their offices, the upcoming transition is likely to be different, Partnership officials said. 

“I think that the current crisis makes this the most important and, perhaps, challenging transition since 1932, when we were in the midst of a depression,” said David Marchick, senior counsel at the law firm Covington & Burling, former Clinton administration official and retired Carlyle Group executive, who is now director of the transition center. “And there are elements of 2008 in this transition as well because the Bush to Obama transition occurred during the financial crisis.”

However, in 2008, “we knew there would be a new president,” Paul Hitlin, Partnership senior research and analysis manager, told Government Executive on Wednesday. Now “agencies have to prepare for two scenarios,” which “adds to their challenges and the difficulties they’re facing.” 

Marchick said there could be several impacts of the pandemic on the transition process for the Trump administration and the campaign of presumptive Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden. These include: navigating remote planning, handling the intensity of the crisis, and figuring out how the Senate will confirm nominees if there are still social distancing guidelines in place next year. He also said that Trump and Biden should have or be ready to have “the right people in their seats in government.” 

Marchick also gave some advice for agencies on handling the transition during the pandemic. He said they should over-communicate, focus on information security (as foreign actors sometimes look to take advantage of the changeover), do more scenario planning “because you have to expect the unexpected in this environment” and dedicate more resources than normal since “it’s going to be a challenging period regardless of who wins the presidency.”

The Partnership said in its report published on Monday that transition planning for presidents starting either their first or fifth years in office is “essential” to their success. Looking at executive orders issued, legislative victories and approval ratings, the study found administrations dating back to the Clinton era achieved many accomplishments during their first year, partially due to transition planning. Meanwhile, fifth years for administrations have “generally been unproductive” since “most have treated their second term as simply a continuation of their first.”

May 3 is an upcoming transition milestone as the 1963 Presidential Transition Act has several requirements for six months before the presidential election (which is November 3, 2020). The president must establish a White House coordinating committee, the agency transition directors council begins to meet, each agency has to name a senior career employee to oversee transition matters, and the federal transition coordinator must report to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Oversight and Reform Committee on transition preparations.

The Biden campaign started assembling a transition team a few weeks ago, The Washington Post reported last week. Speaking at a virtual fundraiser, Biden said he “would consider announcing some cabinet members before the election,” but hasn’t “made that commitment” yet. He is also “considering whether to elevate an official tasked with addressing pandemics to his cabinet,” the paper said. The Partnership applauded Biden’s efforts. 

The Trump campaign did not respond to Government Executive for comment. However, Marchick said: “Every indication we have suggests that the Trump administration is very focused on implementation of the requirements under the [transition act].”

In addition to the coronavirus outbreak, the upcoming transition will be different because the “2019 Presidential Transition Enhancement Act” was enacted in early March to amend the 1963 Act. This law clarifies the General Services Administration’s responsibilities during changeovers, requires presidential candidates to publicly release ethics plans for their transitions before elections and mandates each agency create a succession plan for every senior non-career position by September 15 of an election year.


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