March 04, 2020

Trump Signs Bill to Strengthen Presidential Transition Ethics Requirements

The bipartisan legislation also has requirements for GSA and other federal agencies.

On Tuesday President Trump signed into law a bill to clarify the General Services Administration’s responsibilities during changes in presidential administrations as well as require presidential candidates to publicly release ethics plans for their transitions before elections.

The “2019 Presidential Transition Enhancement Act” (S. 394), amends the 1963 Presidential Transition Act to improve the transfer of executive power between administrations. GSA, presidential transition teams and federal agencies will now have new obligations in the lead-up to Election Day and during the ensuing change in administrations. 

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which recently launched a center housing presidential transition information and resources, has been following the bill closely as it has helped craft similar legislation in the past, and praised the bipartisan effort. 

“Presidential transition legislation has always been nonpartisan because it is about the effective function of our government, not any one presidential candidate,” said Kristine Simmons, vice president of government affairs at the Partnership, in a press release. “The president and members of the House and Senate deserve credit for working across the aisle to ensure that the Presidential Transition Enhancement Act continues that nonpartisan tradition. This is ‘good government’ legislation that clarifies existing law based on lessons learned in the 2016 transition.”

The bill requires GSA and presidential transition teams to enter into a memorandum of understanding by September 1 of an election year that outlines the terms of the agency’s services for the duration of the transition. GSA has to direct all third-party inquiries for records to a representative in the transition team. It also clarifies the services GSA can provide for up to 60 days after the inauguration. The 2015 Presidential Transitions Improvement Act authorized services for up to 180 days after inauguration; however, the Trump team said that 60 days was sufficient.  

In addition to GSA’s requirements, the bill has stipulations for other stakeholders in the transition process. It would require presidential candidates to create and release an ethics plan for their transition team prior to the election. The plans must indicate if there are any current or former lobbyists on the teams, disclose conflicts of interest for the candidate and team members, and include a code of ethical conduct that all members must sign.

Lastly, the measure would mandate that each agency create a succession plan for every senior non-career position by September 15 of an election year. Simmons noted that if the president enacts the legislation and then wins re-election, then this provision would still come into play. 

“Turnover is likely to occur even if the president is re-elected,” she said. “The Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition analysis of the last three two-term presidents shows that from Election Day through the first six months of the second term, an average of 43% of secretaries, deputy secretaries and undersecretaries left their jobs.”

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., introduced the bill in February 2019 after the president’s team and others raised concerns in December 2017 about GSA’s handling of documents and transparency during the Obama-Trump transition. The Senate approved the legislation in August and the House did in February

The president approved the bill on “Super Tuesday,” which comes as the field of Democratic presidential candidates is narrowing and campaigns will soon be thinking about their transition teams.

Read more on Government Executive