Her actions effectively truncate an already brief transition period (78 days), breaking long-established norms about how a losing president concedes and helps the incoming administration prepare to run the government. The issue is even more grave since the country is struggling to defeat a pandemic, which is getting worse as cases and hospitalizations hit record levels. And the fallout will be tremendous — affecting every sector of the economy as well as ratcheting up the level of emotional turmoil and trauma.
Murphy’s reluctance denies Biden’s incoming White House aides critical resources: additional funding to pay for transition expenses (e.g., salaries, supplies, travel), the acquisition of additional office space, advancing the vetting of potential nominees through the FBI and, perhaps most important, access to the civil servants who have prepared extensive reports in preparation for this very moment. The ability to interview outgoing appointees as well as civil servants is fundamental to the successful transfer of power.
The Biden team’s inability to plan heightens the country’s vulnerability — the same vulnerability the 9/11 Commission sought to diminish with the passage of laws aimed at strengthening and formalizing the transition process, after finding that the delayed transition in 2000 after the drawn-out recount process in Florida left national security agencies less prepared in 2001. While both subsequent transitions (2008 and 2016) benefited from these laws, President Trump’s refusal to admit defeat places the country in a precarious position. Unlike his predecessors, Biden will not receive the all-important intelligence briefings, and his advisers are not permitted to meet with high-level officials so that they can learn the risks facing the country.
Even under the best of circumstances, the presidential transition is a trying moment in which a newly elected administration seeks to fill roughly 4,000 positions at the highest levels of our government, establish legislative and policy priorities and do all they can to arrive fully prepared to govern. To Congress’s credit, they have passed laws over the past two decades that enable the two major-party candidates to engage in transition planning several months before Election Day. However, this last phase of planning is one of the most critical: Agency review teams are disseminated across the executive branch to learn about the most pressing issues and possible crises, and generally get the lay of the land. The inability to enter this final phase of planning exacerbates the country’s vulnerability while our enemies near and far observe the disarray.
In 2008, the Obama transition team, which one of us worked on, was able to get out of the gate quickly. After months of preparation with a cooperative Bush White House, agency review teams were welcomed into executive branch departments within days of the election. Their work ensured that Cabinet nominees were well-prepared for confirmation hearings, and those of us walking into the White House or departments and agencies could perform our duties and answer ringing phones on Day One. That work also helped the incoming Obama administration begin the complex task of working with Congress to prepare a stimulus bill to bring the country back from an economic cliff. Now that the 2020 election is over, the Biden-Harris transition team needs the same tools to address the country’s current crises.
The 2000 election results were far closer than this year’s, and there’s really no meaningful comparison in terms of why each transition was delayed. But the one lesson from that year the Biden team may have to act on is the need to establish a shadow transition before the official process can begin. Faced with a recount in Florida and an extended delay in determining the outcome of the election, then-Vice President-elect Richard B. Cheney set up a shadow transition to accomplish as much as possible in those early weeks after Election Day. There is no question that this fall the Biden campaign expected some form of recalcitrance from Trump, particularly in light of his frequent claims of fraud and a waffling answer to the very clear question of whether he would accept the results. We are fortunate that Biden and his team have enough extensive government experience that this hiatus in formal planning will not upend the government. But every day that passes without a full-fledged transition weakens our stance domestically and internationally. It is time to embrace the shadow transition, because it’s long past time for GSA to acknowledge the election results.