A critically important—but little known—law will shape the presidency of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, even before they enter the Oval Office.
In 2010, Congress passed a law to provide “transition funding” to presidential nominees—creating government-sponsored transition offices before the election even tells us who the next president will be. Mitt Romney was the first candidate to receive this type of aid after he secured the GOP nomination in 2012. (That transition shuttered its doors after Romney lost the November election.) But this year there is no incumbent, so for the first time in U.S. history, the federal government will pay for two transitions, one of which is guaranteed to come to naught, and one which will develop into a new administration.
This new approach to transitions is part of a third phase in the history of American presidential transitions. The first phase, which was in effect for most of our history, was one in which transitions, to the extent they existed, were haphazard, and not funded or facilitated by the federal government. This first phase dates back to an era of smaller, less complex government, but also one in which there was a five month period—from Election Day in November to a March inauguration—in which outgoing presidents departed and the incoming president came to town.
The second phase of transitions began in 1952, following the election of Dwight Eisenhower. Not only was the presidential inauguration now taking place in January, but the post-Depression, post-New Deal, and post-World War II, government was much larger, more expensive, and more complex. Eisenhower used the transition period to select his cabinet, a budget director, and, in a new innovation, a Chief of Staff. A key step in the development of this second phase of transitions was the 1963 Presidential Transition Act (PTA).
In John F. Kennedy’s well-regarded presidential transition, he spent approximately $300,000 of his own funds on the effort. Going forward, though, Kennedy recognized the need for transition resources, as well as the fact that other presidents-elect would not be as wealthy as he was. Accordingly, he set up a commission to make recommendations for future transitions, leading to the passage of the PTA, which provided for transition spending in the range of $900,000, the equivalent about $6.7 million today.
The passage of the PTA brought about less variation between transitions, as it was now clear that there would be government funding for transition activities between Election Day and Inauguration Day. Still, each transition has had its own unique approach.
Jimmy Carter started some transition planning in the spring of 1976, at about the time of the Pennsylvania primary. Ronald Reagan’s transition is well-known for the use of conservative think tanks to provide ideas, particularly the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership, the “bible” of the Reagan transition.
George H.W. Bush’s intra-party transition of 1988 angered conservatives who felt they were not getting the same respect they had from the Reagan team. There was good reason for this: An unnamed Bush transition official told the Washington Post that “Our people don’t have agendas. They have mortgages.” Bill Clinton’s Little Rock-based transition in 1992 is remembered for its mis-steps, particularly the series of attorney general picks who did not make it through vetting—Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood. The administration eventually went with Janet Reno, who stayed all eight years, but was manifestly not a White House favorite.
In more recent years, George W. Bush had both longest and shortest transitions of elected presidents in the post PTA era. Longest because he asked his longtime friend Clay Johnson to start thinking about transition all the way back in 1999, and yet shortest because the contested election of 2000 meant that government funding for transition efforts did not come through until after the election was decided, a full five weeks after Election Day.
Barack Obama’s 2008 transition is known for its integration of web resources, including the capacity to process 300,000 resumes of interest.
In this cycle, both Clinton and Trump will have government funded transitions, which does raise some concerns. Whatever happens in November, 40 percent or more of voters will be in the position of having contributed taxpayer dollars to develop policy positions that they will vote against in November. Furthermore, at least 50 percent of the overall spending will be wasted, as one of the transitions’ efforts will be designated for trash bins rather than presidential archives.
In 2012, the cost of the Romney transition was $8.9 million. This year, with funding going to both the Clinton and Trump efforts, the overall cost will be higher. Along with the costs, though, there is one major benefit to the new approach: the development of the pre-convention transition means that there will never again be a truncated transition such as the one that took place after the muddled election of 2000. Regardless of the outcome, both teams will continue their preparations, and either team will be ready to take over whenever the clouds of uncertainty disappear.
Another compelling argument in favor of pre-election transition spending is that the 21st century federal government is so enormous that even the full 80-day transitions of the pre-2010 era are insufficient to the task of preparing candidates and their teams to run such large, complex, and consequential operation. As long as we have an enormous government, incoming administrations will need all the help they can get in preparing to take over.
Of course, the 2010 Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act is by no means a guarantee that taxpayer-funded transition dollars will be spent wisely. It does, however, provide an additional opportunity for successful campaigns to prepare their governing and leadership teams that has been lacking previously. Let’s hope both campaigns will make good use of this taxpayer generosity—and the opportunity it provides.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
Observer columnist Tevi Troy is a presidential historian and former White House aide, and is the author of the forthcoming “Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office” (Lyons, September). He wrote about his experience headed domestic policy for the Romney transition in 2013 for National Affairs, from which this is partially adapted.