More than 72 hours after major news organizations projected that former Vice President Joe Biden will be the 46th president of the United States, the government agency tasked with allowing the presidential transition process to begin is dragging its feet.
The Government Services Administration (GSA), which must ascertain the “apparent” winner of the election so a presidential transition can begin, is not just breaking with precedent. And this delay not only hurts the president-elect’s ability to begin the transition process, it threatens our national security and, as the coronavirus pandemic worsens, our public health. The GSA must immediately grant the Biden transition team the privileges and resources afforded to previous transition teams, just as it did four years ago to then-President-elect Donald Trump. Refusing to grant an apparent winner of a presidential election the ability to prepare to take office hampers the successor’s ability to govern on day one.
The Presidential Transition Act of 1963 lays out the General Services Administration’s role in taking the first step in a presidential transition by ascertaining “the apparent successful candidates for the office of President and Vice President, respectively … following the general elections.” While GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee, may not want to appear to be deciding the election, according to the statute and the agency’s own statement, she is not making the final determination who won the election, but just who appears to have won. In this case, it appears that Biden has won the election.
To be clear, ascertaining that Biden appears to have won the election would not be tipping the scale in his favor. Rather, doing so would give him the resources to be prepared to take over the office of the president should states eventually certify election results and the Electoral College officially determine that he won the election. In addition, it would ensure more accountability for Biden and his team, as they would then be required under the newly passed Presidential Transition Enhancement Act to immediately implement their transition team’s ethics plan.
Failure to Ascertain Threatens National Security
As the Trump campaign seeks investigations and legal options to contest the election, the General Services Administration claims to be “adhering to prior precedent established by the Clinton Administration in 2000.” During the 2000 election, the agency did not provide federal transition resources to the Bush team until December 14, the day after then-Vice President Al Gore officially conceded the election. As a result, then-President-elect George W. Bush and his team only had about five weeks to officially begin his transition. It is worth noting here that the 2000 election margins were much smaller than those presented today.
Perhaps more importantly, delaying the 2000 presidential transition by more than a month after the election had grave consequences to America’s national security. According to Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the 9/11 Commission, the prolonged presidential transition proved a threat to America’s national security and played a role in the failure to prevent the September 11 attacks. According to Kean and Hamilton, “the Bush administration, like others before it, did not have its full national security team on the job until at least six months after it took office.” With many important positions left vacant for months leading up to the attacks, important red flags went unnoticed.
Following the 9/11 Commission’s report, several key recommendations were adopted into law, allowing presidential transition teams to submit the names of candidates for high-level national security positions in advance of the new administration assuming power, in order to ensure the timely completion of the security clearance process. Additionally, the president-elect is supposed to receive the president’s daily brief, in order to help ensure a smooth transition on national security matters. Currently, Biden and his team don’t have that privilege and can only receive the pre-election security briefings from the government. Furthermore, without the General Services Administration’s ascertainment, the Biden transition team can’t receive more detailed classified briefings; nor can it seek assistance from the State Department in responding to foreign leaders congratulating Biden on the election and discussions on various issues the leaders can work together on in the future. This will put the new administration at a disadvantage come January 20.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) articulated the stakes of a successful transition well when he wrote in December 2017, “an incoming administration must be ready to govern on day one. Any threat to the close coordination between the transition and outgoing administration could create vulnerabilities to governance, readiness, and national security.” America is better served when all potential presidents and their teams are prepared to lead on day one.
It’s important to note that not only is America’s national security at risk, but during the ongoing global pandemic our public health is at risk. On Monday, Biden announced the creation of a new coronavirus task force to advise him during the transition. However, without the General Services Administration’s determination that Biden won the election, these advisors are not able to work with federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, or the Food and Drug Administration, which would allow them to get current government assessments on the true impact of the virus and potential treatments.
This comes just as drug maker Pfizer announced yesterday that data shows that its vaccine is more than 90% effective and could be approved as early as mid-December. Given that the coronavirus is the biggest threat our nation—and the world—is currently facing, the president-elect’s team should be permitted to interact with and work with the current administration. Preventing this from happening severely threatens the livelihoods of all Americans, who are depending on the federal government to respond effectively to the pandemic. As the nation is preparing to hit a quarter of a million deaths from the virus, it’s clear that having an unprepared administration entering office next year would be far worse than having a prepared one.
Allowing the Biden-Harris team to begin its transition efforts in earnest will not hinder the Trump administration’s ability to investigate unfounded allegations of voter fraud or to pursue legal challenges to the election result, though it does not appear that there is a path to changing the apparent outcome of the election. But continuing to prevent the next presidential administration from getting up to speed and preparing to govern could very well hurt the country.