One year from now, the United States will have, in effect, two governments. One will be that of the incoming President-elect, just getting assembled and without authority to act. The other will be that of the retiring President, in the process of disassembly and perhaps with neither the energy nor the inclination to act except to respond to some emergency. Even in an emergency, the response might not be the best because so many positions may be held by caretakers.
On Jan. 20, the day a new President takes office, there is almost a complete break in the continuity of the Presidency. The incoming crew taking over offices at the West Wing of the White House is likely to find nothing but scattered papers.
One of the peculiarities of the American system is the presidential transition, the period between the election early in November and the January inauguration when, comments former Jimmy Carter adviser Harrison Wellford: "There is an authority crisis. We haven't been burned by it, but we could be."
Even in tranquil times, there is likely to be virtual chaos. Veteran New York Times Washington columnist James Reston commented earlier this year: "One of the major problems of our presidential elections is that the winner usually staggers out of an exhausting campaign with only a few weeks to pick a Cabinet and a White House staff, draft an inauguration speech, deliver a State of the Union message and construct a budget."
To cope with that imposing burden, the President-elect is allowed a maximum of $2 million in public funds under current law. Finding that amount inadequate, Reagan forces raised more than $1 million privately in 1980 to cover additional transition costs. The monetary allocation, at least, would be increased to $5 million under a bill being drafted by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio). An additional $500,000 might be allocated to help nominees during the summer to develop a personnel-screening process and to establish liaison with federal agencies and departments.
But the Glenn legislation would only begin to correct some of the problems created by the transition. Much more needs to be done and 1988 provides the best opportunity for action in years since no incumbent is running for reelection.
Consider the plight of a potential Cabinet or sub-Cabinet nominee around Christmastime as he is summoned to Washington for a dizzying round of interviews and then presented with volumes of conflict-of-interest statements to complete. If the candidate is formally appointed, he must be prepped for confirmation hearings, somehow arrange for a home in Washington, close down a business or law practice, arrange for schools and all the other details of a move. The federal government, of course, will not pay moving expenses for new appointees. It should.
Assemblying a pool of prospective candidates for hundreds of key jobs like assistant secretary of defense for acquisition and logistics, or solicitor of the Interior Department is another problem. The new Administration must begin developing rapport with leaders in Congress to prepare the way for the first wave of legislative proposals, if there is time to prepare them. The transition needs to work on the next year's budget, but all the experts at the Office of Management and Budget are busy compiling the final budget of the outgoing Administration--a budget that will be ignored come Jan. 20. Outgoing Presidents may pledge cooperation, but there is bound to be tension and suspicion if not outright hostility.
The only way to overcome these handicaps is to create some formal institution to facilitate the transition from one Administration to the next. Glenn, as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, should solicit the support of the Reagan Administration and the former Presidents to develop a complete transition package. The opportunity is now and it should be seized.