INTRODUCTION

In passing the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, Congress explained: “Any disruption occasioned by the transfer of the executive power could produce results detrimental to the safety and well-being of the United States and its people.” To promote the orderly transfer of power, Congress established a framework for the federal government to prepare for a transition from one president to another.

With strong bipartisan support, the Act has been amended over the years to recognize the increasing complexities of presidential transitions.[1] The law requires the General Services Administration to provide office space and other core support services to presidents-elect and vice Presidents-elect, as well as pre-election space and support to major candidates.  The Act also requires the White House and agencies to begin transition planning well before a presidential election, benefitting both first and second term administrations.

WHAT ARE AGENCY AND INTER-AGENCY TRANSITION PLANNING REQUIREMENTS? 

The Act establishes an early and organized cadence for the federal government’s transition planning: 

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRATION? 

The Act requires GSA to provide office space and administrative support (such as information technology and communications capabilities) to a president-elect and vice president-elect. Recognizing a growing need for transition activities to start well before election day, the Act also requires GSA to offer office space and support to major candidates in the months preceding the election, following the political conventions. In the post-election period, GSA is also authorized to pay expenses for staff, experts, postage, and travel for the transition team of the president-elect, if the president-elect is not a president who has been re-elected. Use of government aircraft also may be provided on a reimbursable basis. 

GSA also serves a liaison between transition teams and the federal government, helping, for example, to ensure that a president-elect’s initial round of appointees are cleared to enter each agency and be on the job immediately after inauguration of the new president. The law requires the GSA Administrator to designate a senior career official to serve as the Federal Transition Coordinator, who coordinates transition planning across agencies. GSA is also required to compile a report on modern transitions and create a transition directory with comprehensive information on the officers, organization, and responsibilities of each federal agency. GSA also provides support to help outgoing presidents as they depart the White House. 

Also, recognizing that incoming political appointees face unique challenges and requirements coming into federal service, the Act allows GSA to expend funds of training for new appointees during the entire duration of a president’s term, not just during transition or at the beginning of the term.  

HOW DOES THE ACT HELP WITH TRANSITION RELATED TO NATIONAL SECURITY? 

The Act directs the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies responsible for conducting background investigations to conduct those investigations expeditiously, with the goal of providing appropriate security clearances before inauguration for the individuals that the President-elect has identified for high level national security positions, including secretaries and undersecretaries of cabinet-level agencies. The law also requires that the president-elect be given a classified summary as soon as possible after the election on threats to national security, covert military operations, and pending decisions on possible uses of military force. The White House Transition Coordinating Council is tasked with conducting interagency emergency preparedness and response exercises. 

Separately, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004[3] allows each eligible candidate, before the election, to submit security clearance requests for prospective transition team members who will need access to classified information. The law directs that background investigations and security clearance determinations for these individuals be completed, to the fullest extent practicable, by the day after the date of the election. 

WHAT REQUIREMENTS ARE PLACED ON RECIPIENTS OF TRANSITION ASSISTANCE? 

As a condition of receiving office space and related services, eligible candidates, the president-elect and the vice president-elect are required to disclose to GSA all non-federal contributions received for transition activities. The transition teams must also disclose to the public the identities and sources of funding of individuals who enter federal agencies after the election as part of the President-elect’s transition team. Also, GSA, to the greatest extent practicable, must enter memoranda of understanding with each eligible candidate which includes the conditions for the services and facilities provided by GSA, designation of a transition representative to receive inquires related to transition team documents, conditions for access to agencies by the president-elect’s transition team, and agreement by transition teams to implement, enforce and publicly disclose ethics plans for transition team members.  

HOW ARE PRESIDENTIAL TRANSITIONS FUNDED? 

Presidential transitions are funded through a combination of federally appropriated funds and private funds. For the 2020-2021 transition cycle, Congress provided $9.62 million for transition activities in fiscal year 2020 and $9.9 million in fiscal year 2021. 

To accept private funding, an eligible candidate must establish an entity that is legally separate from the campaign and that qualifies under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code.  An eligible candidate may transfer into this entity contributions received for his or her general election campaign and may also solicit and accept donations directly into it. Contributions per person or organization may not exceed $5,000. As noted above, contributions must be disclosed to GSA.  

WHAT HAPPENS IF A PRESIDENT IS RE-ELECTED? 

In the event that the president-elect is the incumbent or where the vice president-elect is the incumbent, federal transition funds for post-election transition activities are returned to the Treasury. The law does allow, though, for GSA to use funds for training of new political appointees throughout a president’s term. 

WHAT HAPPENS IF THE RESULT OF THE ELECTION IS UNCLEAR? 

The law provides that an eligible candidate has the right to the facilities and services provided to eligible candidates until the date on which the Administrator is able to determine the apparent successful candidates for the office of president and vice president. 

Also, under legislation passed by Congress in 2022, the law now provides that if GSA has not ascertained the winner within 5 days of the election, equitable post-election transition assistance will be provided to candidates until there is a clear winner.4 The 2022 law also lays out discretionary factors that the Administrator of GSA should look to in determining a winner (e.g., certified state results) as well as mandatory factors (e.g., a majority of pledged electors based on state certifications of their final canvass and conclusion of related administrative/legal actions). 

Timeline of Requirements

Ongoing

12 months before election

6 months before election

Post-Conventions through Election

Post-Election (if there is a change in administration)

Post-Election (if results are unclear)

 

Read more

The Center for Presidential Transition’s comprehensive guide on the activities required during the transition. This guide for the 2024 presidential election cycle was produced in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group. It features detailed outlines of transition best practices, historical materials from past transitions, and recommendations for a successful presidential transition to a new or second-term administration.

Federal agencies face a cascading series of challenges before and after a presidential election and into the early months of a new or second-term administration. Since 2008, the Partnership for Public Service has provided resources to federal agencies, while promoting knowledge-sharing and collaboration, to strengthen presidential transitions.

The Agency Transition Guide­­ has been developed by the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition® and Boston Consulting Group, informed by conversations with federal leaders and other presidential transition experts. It provides lessons learned from past transitions at federal agencies and includes best practices and key decision points to help senior career executives lead successful transition planning efforts.

While this guide focuses on presidential transitions, most federal agencies will also experience a change in political leadership at least once during an administration. The practices outlined in this guide apply to principal leadership transitions independent of the election cycle.

Despite unprecedented challenges, President Biden oversaw one of the most well-planned presidential transitions in U.S. history. The Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition supported this process behind the scenes, providing key insights to the Biden team as it prepared to potentially take office and working with stakeholders across government to facilitate an effective transfer of power.

Report of the contributions received by the Biden-Harris Transition Team and the expenses incurred reported to the General Services Administration (GSA) as required by the Presidential Transition Act.

This resource outlines the steps required to create, organize and run a transition team from an operational standpoint. Topics include setting up the 501(c)(4) nonprofit structure, budgeting and funding and establishing human resources functions. Sample position description for the operations director is also included.

President-elect Biden and his team have already started their transition work, demonstrating skill, experience and purpose. Now that ascertainment has occurred, they can continue with the full support of the United States government. 

RESOURCES NOW AVAILABLE 

1. The Biden-Harris agency review teams may begin coordination with the 17 agencies with intelligence responsibilities. 

2. The General Services Administration (GSA) can release $6.3 million in congressionally appropriated funds to the transition team, along with 175,000 square feet of federal office space, including secure facilities for sensitive intelligence briefings. 

3. Career agency transition directors can coordinate with the Biden-Harris transition team and deliver the briefing materials they have been preparing for the past six months

4. The Biden-Harris team will be granted access to agency succession plans naming acting officials who will hold key positions until Senate-confirmed appointees are in place. 

5. The Department of Justice (DOJ) may begin the final step in adjudicating final, non-interim security clearances for transition team members and political appointees entering the administration on Day One. 

6. The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) can begin coordinating agency ethics officials to support nominees who must disclose, and if necessary, divest assets in accordance with federal ethics laws. 

7. The Office of Performance Management (OPM) can release guidance on personnel actions to take in preparation for the incoming administration, including a moratorium on agencies’ SES Qualifications Review Board process and the authorization for agencies to move forward with Temporary Schedule C and Temporary Non-Career SES hires. 

8. The White House Transition Coordinating Council will facilitate homeland security and emergency preparedness exercises as required by law. 

9. The National Archives and Records Administration will provide guidance to the outgoing administration and transition team on managing and preserving presidential records. 

10. The Biden-Harris transition team will be granted access to an official .gov website and government software applications for the intake of applicants for political appointments.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS 

Q: How much time was lost due to the delay? 

A: Recent transitions have had about 77 days between the election and inauguration. The Biden team will have 57 days. 

Q: How does this delay compare with other recent transitions? 

A: For all recent transitions, the GSA identified the winner immediately following the election. The only exception was in 2000 during the tight election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. That year, the GSA identified the winner on Dec. 13 immediately following Gore’s concession speech. 

This year’s election outcome was substantially different than that of 2000. 

Q: What adjustments have been made due to the COVID-19 pandemic? 

When Biden’s transition team was given federal office space after the political conventions, the GSA informed the team of guidelines produced by the Centers for Disease Control and 

Prevention. The transition team was responsible for determining how the guidelines would be implemented. 

Additionally, the GSA and federal agencies have increased the use of videoconference platforms and made documents available in digital formats. When in-person meetings are necessary, agencies and agency review teams will follow COVID-19 safety protocols to allow for safe in-person interactions. 

Q: Does a shortened transition impact a president’s first year? 

A: It can. The bipartisan 9/11 Commission, which studied the tragic terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, found the Bush administration did not have its full national security team in place for at least six months after it took office. 

Additional research by the Center for Presidential Transition showed that that the shortened transition in 2000 resulted in President Bush having half as many top appointees in place at the 100-day mark of his term as President Barack Obama did eight years later with a full transition period. 

Q: What are other available resources to learn more? 

A: For more information on the transition process, please refer to the following resources produced by the Center for Presidential Transition. 

 

Following the 2000 election, Bush-Cheney Transition Chairman Dick Cheney communicated the implications of a delayed transition, the requirements of building a new government and his thoughts on the General Service Administration’s denial of transition resources. These quotes are primarily from news conferences on Nov. 27 and Nov. 29, 2000.

The modern-day Presidential Transition Act outlines multiple requirements for all stakeholders involved in presidential transitions. This document describes the requirements that apply to the post-election period.