On Jan. 20, a new president will take the oath. Then, if history is any guide, he or she will squander much of the momentum of a new presidency by failing to put a team in place over the course of the first year. "You learn as a child that the peaceful transfer of power is essential to democracy," said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "No one ever tells you that it is peaceful but ugly."
Could it be prettier? Stier believes it could be. Thanks in large part to prodding from the partnership, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump started receiving official resources to begin planning for transition after their conventions, earlier than in the past, and both candidates have formed teams — well-qualified ones, Stier said. Also with the partnership's encouragement, Congress reduced the number of administration positions that require confirmation, by 169.
But that still leaves a daunting 1,100 positions that require confirmation (out of 4,000 or so jobs that turn over with each administration). Congress won't easily reduce the number further, because senators believe the confirmation power gives them leverage over other executive decisions. But even absent further legislation, there are steps that would help a new administration get in position more quickly.
President Barack Obama could take some of those steps right now. The executive branch insists that nominees for all 1,100 confirmable positions receive top secret security clearances — a holdover, Stier said, from the Red Scare days of the early Eisenhower administration. That requirement puts absurd demands on nominees, to turn over reams of information, and on the FBI, which has better things to do with its time. Do we really need to worry that Russia might plant a mole on the board of the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Scholarship and Excellence in National Environmental Policy Foundation? The administration and key congressional committees also could simplify and unify the forms that nominees must fill out. This may sound trivial — but the cumbersome, time-consuming process keeps many qualified people from wanting to serve.
The goal, Stier said, should be for an incoming administration to put forward leadership teams for each Cabinet department — secretary, deputy secretary, general counsel — for vetting by Congress in early January so that most can be confirmed immediately after Inauguration Day. It's in an administration's political interest to do so — the Senate is least likely to second-guess early on — and it is in the nation's interest, too, especially given the national security risks during transition.
Presidential candidates don't like to be seen paying much attention to this, lest voters find them presumptuous. Presidents often don't pay much attention, either, because management challenges are not sexy and reforms may take years to pay off. But let a management problem become a crisis — when the health care exchanges fail, say, or the Internal Revenue Service mishandles a political hot potato — and the relevance of getting the process right becomes painfully clear. Though every president promises to learn that lesson, things continue to get worse, at least in relative terms, Stier said: "Government is not keeping up with an ever-changing world." With a few commonsense improvements, Obama at least could give his successor a head start on changing that picture.