Thompson Urges GSA to Open Transition Office

WASHINGTON __ U.S. Senator Fred Thompson (R_TN), Chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, last week urged General Services Administration (GSA) Administrator David Barram to open the presidential transition office as soon as possible. “Anything less than full transition support,” writes Chairman Thompson, “runs the risk of damage to our country.”

The Governmental Affairs Committee has oversight of the GSA. Chairman Thompson is the Senate cosponsor of the Presidential Transition Act of 2000, Public Law 106_293, which facilitates transitions between administrations. Congressman Stephen Horn (CA), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information, and Technology, is the author and sponsor of the House counterpart to the Presidential Transition Act of 2000.

Chairman Thompson’s letter

December 1, 2000

The Honorable David Barram
General Services Administration
18th and F Streets, NW
Washington, D.C. 20405

Dear Administrator Barram:

As Senate co-sponsor of the Presidential Transition Act of 2000 and Chairman of the committee of jurisdiction, I want to express to you my concern about your decision to not go forward with the transition activities contemplated under the Act. I believe that anything less than full transition support runs the risk of damage to our country.

First, I want to acknowledge that this is your decision to make under the statute. I am well aware that Mr. Podesta has made the position of the White House abundantly clear on numerous occasions. Also, I understand that the Department of Justice will soon render a “formal opinion” on this matter. I am surprised that Mr. Podesta has already announced on CNN that the Department of Justice agrees with his opinion. However, this is not a decision for the White House or the Justice Department in coordination with the White House. The decision is yours.

Clearly, these are unusual circumstances and I know you are doing your best, under your interpretation of the law. However, I believe you should grant Secretary Cheney?s request that you authorize his access to transition facilities, services and briefings for two reasons: first, because of the dictates of the statute itself and second, because of the damage that will be done if an orderly transition is hampered any further.

As you know, the Presidential Transition Act authorizes you to provide “upon request, to each President-elect and each Vice President-elect for use in connection with his preparations for the assumption of official duties as President or Vice President services and facilities.” The Act defines the President-elect and the Vice President-elect as “such persons as are the apparent successful candidates for the office of President and Vice President, respectively, as ascertained by the Administrator following the general elections held to determine the electors of President and Vice President in accordance with title 3, United States Code, sections 1 and 2.” Committee and conference reports accompanying this legislation do not shed light on the question of what constitutes “apparent successful candidates.” Neither do House floor debates from 1963 elucidate how the Administrator might ascertain the “apparent successful candidates.” Thus, the certification of the election results in Florida is the only official benchmark we have to ascertain the “apparent successful candidates” in this election.

For some time now there has been a growing realization among observers, experts and scholars that presidential transitions are of vital importance to our country and that this period of time is crucial to a successful presidency.

Disastrous transitions in more than one recent presidency have sown the seeds of the chaos and serious mistakes of their early years in office. Mind you, these were transitions that began the night of the election.

That is why Senator Lieberman and I sponsored, the Congress enacted and the President signed, the Presidential Transition Act of 2000. The purpose of the act is to encourage early planning of transitions and it authorized for the first time the actual expenditure of transition funds before the election is even held. Because there are only 73 days from election day to inauguration day, transition planning should begin prior to election day, and the President-elect must have the ability to move immediately to put a new team in place.

Senator Lieberman stated, “Knowledgeable observers have warned that it would take up until November 2001 before all the senior members of the new Administration are vetted and confirmed due to factors such a lengthier background checks, burdensome and duplicative financial disclosure forms and a more contentious Senate confirmation process.” Yesterday, Paul Light, a Brookings scholar and head of the Presidential Appointee Initiative, described the damage the current wrangling will already cause a new Administration. He said the delay in vetting presidential appointees makes it likely that a new Administration will not be fully in place until February or March of 2002, four months later than for the Bush and Clinton Administrations.

This delay is simply unacceptable. We live in a more dangerous world in many respects than ever before, economic transactions on the other side of the world can affect us with great speed and we need more efficient and rapid transitions. Unfortunately, we are actually moving in the opposite direction because transitions are taking longer. Add that to the current situation where most, if not all, of the transition time could be used up in an election contest and you have the recipe for chaos. I would remind you that even a U. S. Supreme Court decision favorable to Governor Bush may not resolve all of the election contest issues in Florida.

Also, even if you are concerned over giving either Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore an advantage at this point, the status quo gives Governor Bush, the apparent winner, a substantial disadvantage. As was reported in the New York Times on November 28, Mr. Gore does not really need a transition office: “Until January 20 he has plenty of office space in the Old Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House, an office in the West Wing; a spacious Vice Presidential residence at the Naval Observatory, where he and his aides have been mapping their strategy. Moreover, Mr. Gore has access to daily intelligence briefings and aides who are already cleared to receive classified material.” Also, as his chief of transition stated, he is entirely capable of putting a cabinet together at a moment?s notice. In other words, if Mr. Gore were ultimately to be elected, he would not have been substantially harmed by the current delay. On the other hand, if the apparent winner, Mr. Bush, is ultimately elected, he and his Administration will have been substantially disadvantaged, undoubtedly with adverse consequences to our nation. I would ask this Administration to consider whether it is reasonable to give Governor Bush national security briefings but not allow the beginning of FBI background checks on those who would be his national security advisors.

During a presidential transition, staff of the President-elect and Vice President-elect are responsible for vetting the thousands of prospective Executive Branch appointees for their eventual positions. The necessary vetting normally takes up to four months. Those with direct experience in this process report that the typical FBI security clearance takes three months to complete. Not only will this hamstring the new administration in its new duties, it puts at risk the very security that such background investigations are designed to protect.

Facilities are in place now for use by the presidential transition. The taxpayers are paying for office space and equipment that is going unused. The transition payroll is ready for the transition staff. As we both know, this is not a matter of handing over dollar bills to the incoming team. To fail to put these facilities to use is a waste of taxpayer dollars. I therefore call on you to respond positively to Secretary Cheney?s request that you authorize his access to the transition facilities, services and briefings provided for in the Presidential Transition Act.

Again, I appreciate your consideration of this unusual and difficult matter and only ask that you make your independent decision based upon the language of the statute and the best interests of the nation.