House Subcommittee Hears Testimony On Future Presidential Transitions

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

( - A recent action by the head of General Services Administration to hold presidential transition funds caused a House subcommittee to hold a hearing Monday on how future presidential transitions can be handled in a smoother manner. The subcommittee heard from six witnesses who oversaw transitions of several administrations, as the subcommittee examined the intent of the Presidential Transition Act and the effect of a transition delay on the incoming administration.

House Government Management Subcommittee chairman Steve Horn (R-CA), himself, recently involved in a close re-election that involved a recount, called the hearing after General Services Administrator David Barram put a hold on the $7.1 million presidential transition fund. Barram said he is still unable to ascertain an apparent winner. Recently, the incoming Bush administration began a transition process with private funding.

The Presidential Transition Act authorizes the General Services Administration to provide funding and assistance for incoming and outgoing presidents to help ensure a smooth transition between administrations.

Jack Watson, former director of President Carter's transition team told the subcommittee that, despite the legal wrangling, there is "no constitutional or presidential governing crisis here. There is quite simply an incredibly close presidential election. The outcome needs to be and will be resolved as fairly and expeditiously as possible within the coming days."

Watson also believes one transition problem -- the confirmation process -- takes "far too long."

"The appointment process in the federal government takes far too long, and the lags on getting people into office are taking a terrible toll on good governance. The gathering of seemingly endless but questionably irrelevant but legally required background information and the filling out of redundant forms takes too long. The FBI field investigations take too long and, in many cases, are a questionable value to begin with. The Senate confirmation process also takes too long," Watson said.

Watson also thinks the process can be cut only by a "good, bipartisan effort" at reform by both Congress and the President and the "sooner, the better."

Former Bush chief of staff John Sununu told the subcommittee he has received resumes for an incoming George W. Bush administration and denied that he is performing the same duty for George W. that he did for his father back in 1989.

"I am not part of the current transition. I do not expect to ever to be asked to be part of the current transition. I have not offered my services and I have received about two dozen resumes, unsolicited from people who want me to somehow impact the appointment process," Sununu said.

Sununu also thinks potential administration appointees may choose not to serve in a presidential administration because the legal and monetary costs may be too high.

"It is not unusual for a major potential appointee to spend between 10 and 60 thousand dollars on legal and accounting fees in preparing the forms to be named to a senior position in the federal government. That is ridiculous. The process of the forms and the process of the field investigation and the long delay between appointment and confirmation is a discouraging factor to the best and the brightest and those that we should have in the government," Sununu said.

But former Clinton deputy chief of staff Mark Gearan told the subcommittee that despite what he called an "extraordinary transition" because of the current legal wrangling, he has "full confidence" that the next president "will be able to start his administration with the necessary complement of White House staff and members of his cabinet" in the opening days of their term.

However, Gearan thinks the transition, because of the circumstances, will not allow the new president to build a "honeymoon" period.

"One element of this transition that will be missing is the opportunity for the president-elect to build and develop a honeymoon. To put chits into the political bank that will serve him well in his tenure as president. Transitions traditionally allow for that reintroduction to the American people of the newly elected president and his priorities and his values and his statements. I'm not sure any legislation will take back that time," Gearan said.

The subcommittee listened to the testimony but did not take any legislative action. However, despite the close election, Subcommittee Vice Chairman Judy Biggert (R-IL) the close election should not have caused the GSA to abdicate its "responsibility."

"The law gives GSA the authority to grant funds to the 'apparent' winner. The law does not prevent the GSA from using a little common sense and making funds available to the likely winner. One-third of the precious time allotted for transition has expired, and yet no individual has been afforded the assistance provided for by the Presidential Transition Act. This assistance is needed, as the 1963 Act stated to 'promote the orderly transfer of executive power', " Biggert said.

Biggert called on the Subcommittee to "write and pass legislation to remedy the alleged defects in the Presidential Transition Act, by making crystal clear what steps the GSA must take if we again find ourselves in a situation similar to this. That would only be for the good of the country."