Presidential Transition Demands Transparency

(Photo: AP/Charles Dharapak)

President Barack Obama stands with former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas on April 25, 2013.

Election Day is five months away, but the presidential transfer of power is already under way. While transition-planning might strike some voters as premature, the presidency has simply grown too complex for the thousands of important decisions behind a functioning executive branch to be made in the 77 days between the election and Inauguration Day.

As a group of past Republican and Democratic White House luminaries advised in an open letter to this year’s crop of presidential hopefuls: “Some may view such early preparation as presumptuous, but the days of candidates attacking each other for ‘measuring the drapes’ should be over.” Early transition-planning is also now a matter of law. In March, President Barack Obama signed into law bipartisan legislation that requires the White House to mobilize an interagency transition council at least six months before Election Day.

But just as important as early planning is an open and transparent process—a point often lost amid calls to prepare. Too often shrouded in secrecy, transition-planning must adhere to the same democratic principles of openness and public participation that should guide all government activities. Otherwise, political money and back-room deals, which have so roiled Republican and Democratic voters throughout this campaign, threaten to dictate the process.

In the past, transition-planning has typically happened behind closed doors, with huge decisions made by a select few loyal insiders before a single vote had been cast. Consider this: One of Ronald Reagan’s chief transition planners, Pendleton James, met in secret with Edwin Meese at a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Northern Virginia to discuss personnel plans.

Nobody knows who George W. Bush’s transition planners were listening to in the summer of 2000. Nor do we know the full calendar of meetings that Barack Obama’s advisers held eight years later during that same period. Were campaign contributors permitted to submit the names of their favored cabinet nominees? Were lobbyists allowed to recommend which policies should be at the top of the presidential agenda during the first 100 days? We have almost no way of knowing.

One danger of this secrecy is that mega campaign contributors may be given the chance to pick the next set of cabinet secretaries, or even recommend themselves for a plum job. Lack of transparency may also undermine democracy, since a secretive process is more likely to leave out the voices of average Americans who live far from Washington. Even if secrecy presents merely the appearance of impropriety and nothing worse, perceptions that the system is rigged may erode public confidence in the transition process.

Such dangers are not just theoretical. The George W. Bush transition provides a case in point. During the short transition that followed the 2000 contested election, the Bush team moved to overhaul numerous federal policies, including energy and natural resources rules. Steven Griles, a coal industry lobbyist who had represented the National Mining Association, assisted in the transition. After that work was completed, Griles landed the Department of Interior’s number-two position, where he worked to loosen rules on public lands. (Later, he was implicated in the federal investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff before being sentenced to ten months in jail.)

Griles’s efforts to bring industry into the transition arguably helped set the stage for Vice President Dick Cheney’s secret energy task force. After the transition, Cheney discreetly organized the invitation-only group of industry executives.  This task force offered advice on the direction of Bush policy. The secretive nature of the task force prevented environmental groups or the public-at-large from offering any input into Bush administration policy. The outsized—and occasionally criminal—influence of the energy industry in the Bush administration was set in motion during this period.

Bush was not the only president to move campaign operatives onto his transition team. In 2008, Obama supporters quickly shifted from campaigning to governing. Eight Obama campaign bundlers—supporters who pool contributions on behalf of the candidate—were chosen for prominent positions on the transition team, including entrepreneur Penny Pritzker, media executive Julius Genachowski, and corporate strategist Don Gips. Like Griles during the Bush years, they were all eventually appointed to posts in the Obama administration.


So what should candidates do? In addition to following the sage advice of White House veterans to start planning now, candidates should pull back the curtain on the transition process. As soon as the final party primary is held in June, all candidates should publicly announce their transition-planning teams, even if the party nominations have not been sewn up. Knowing who is in charge of transition-planning will permit the public greater insight into the process.

Candidates should also reveal the identities of their transition-planning funders and whether those funders have access to the transition team. The federal government provides some funding for such planning, but that money is not released until after the party conventions are held. Given that transition-planning is starting now, candidates must rely on other sources of support. The sources of that support will tell voters a lot about the role special interests will play in the next administration.

Finally, the same archival procedures that presidents use once in office should be employed during the transition. In the past, most transition documents have been destroyed, since federal record-keeping rules do not kick in until after the inauguration. But transition materials are historical documents and should be preserved for use by future presidential candidates, journalists, and researchers.

Candidates who follow these recommendations will still be free to raise money from whomever they choose, hold meetings with lobbyists and interest groups, and keep the content of any advice they receive private—especially about personnel decisions. These recommendations simply suggest that candidates should adhere to the same principles of transparency, public participation, and democracy that they should if elected.

During a campaign season when Republican and Democrats alike have called for a greater voice in Washington for average voters, an open and transparent transition process would go a long way toward restoring public confidence in the White House and in government.

Heath Brown is author of a white paper published April 29 in conjunction with Public Citizen titled: A Recommendation for Presidential Transition Transparency.

This article was posted in conjunction with the Scholars Strategy Network

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