April 28, 2020

White House Directs Agencies to Plan for Presidential Transition

Under the law, agencies have until Friday to designate career officials to oversee planning.

Just days ahead of a statutory deadline on Friday, the Trump administration on Monday released guidance for agencies to begin planning for a potential presidential transition next year. 

The Office of Management and Budget sent a memo to the heads of all executive branch agencies instructing them to designate a senior career employee to oversee transition planning. 

“The Presidential Transition Act promotes the orderly transfer of executive powers in connection with the expiration of the term of office of a president and the inauguration of a new president,” wrote Acting OMB Director Russell Vought. “The activities required by the act are also helpful to prepare for leadership transitions that occur between the first and second terms of administrations.”

Under the 2015 Presidential Transitions Improvement Act, which amended the 1963 Presidential Transition Act, the president must establish a White House coordinating committee and council of agency transition directors six months prior to a presidential election to facilitate an efficient transfer of power. Additionally, a federal transition coordinator must report transition preparations to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Oversight and Reform Committee. 

By May 1, the cabinet agencies, Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, Office of Personnel Management, Office of Government Ethics and National Archives and Records Administration must name a senior career employee to serve as their agency’s transition directors. These individuals will serve on the Agency Directors Council, which is co-chaired by OMB deputy director for management and the federal transition coordinator. 

Among the council’s responsibilities are coordinating transition activities across government, providing guidance on the process and ensuring that agencies prepare career officials to fill non-career positions during the transition. Vought said that OMB and the General Services Administration plan to have an Agency Transition Directors Council meeting on May 27.

Also by May 1, agencies must identify a point of contact for all transition related communications. Mary Gibert, GSA’s associate administrator, will serve as the Federal Transition Coordinator. 

By September 15, each agency head must have a succession plan for each senior, non-career position in the agency. This requirement was included in the 2019 Presidential Transition Enhancement Act, which President Trump signed into law in March. The law clarified GSA’s responsibilities during changeovers and required presidential candidates to publicly release ethics plans for their transitions prior to  elections.

The nonprofit the Partnership for Public Service, which serves as an information resource for transitions, stresses that a transition occurs regardless if the sitting president wins or not. In a report published on April 20, the Partnership found 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 that the first-year accomplishments of administrations dating to the Clinton era could be attributed, in part, to their transition planningMeanwhile, administrations’ fifth years have “generally been unproductive” since “most have treated their second term as simply a continuation of their first.”

The upcoming transition is likely to be different, as it will occur in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I think that the current [coronavirus] 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.”

In an interview with Government Executive last week, he spoke about potential impacts of the pandemic on the transition process for the Trump administration and the campaign of presumptive Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden. Agencies “have to expect the unexpected in this environment,” he said. 

The Biden campaign started assembling a transition team a few weeks ago, The Washington Post reported on April 17. 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. Also, “Every indication we have suggests that the Trump administration is very focused on implementation of the requirements under the [transition act],” said Marchick. 

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