- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 29, 2000

Although George W. Bush has now finally been certified winner of the presidential election, the Clinton administration has shamefully refused to give him access to the transition office. It amounts to petty vindictiveness over a hard fought loss, and displays not only poor sportsmanship, but an irresponsible disregard of the national interest. It seems that even in his final days, Bill Clinton cannot resist one last exhibition of poor judgment.

It is well understood that the transition between a presidential election and inauguration day is one of the most critical periods in any presidency. Time is short, there is much to do, and failure can cripple a presidency long after the oath of office has been taken. That is why Congress has appropriated $5.3 million, and the General Services Administration has reserved two floors of an office building at 18th and G Streets in Washington for transition planning. However, although the election has been over for three weeks, not a penny of transition money has been spent and GSA refuses to turn over the office keys to Bush's representatives.

At first glance, it appears that GSA is being evenhanded. After all, Al Gore, who still believes that the courts will hand him a victory denied to him by the Electoral College, theoretically cannot start a transition either. But, of course, Gore does not really need a transition. He already has an office in the White House and a large staff as well, with unrestricted access to every department and agency of government.

Nor does Gore face the necessity of filling thousands of jobs that will become vacant on Jan. 20, doing background checks, and obtaining Senate confirmation for hundreds of them. He can, if he desires, simply keep on the Clinton appointees who wish to stay. Gore could even ask Janet Reno to stay for another four years as Attorney General, in order to continue her brilliant work covering up Clinton administration wrongdoing.

Bush, by contrast, has to start from scratch in a transition period that has already shrunk by 30 percent. Given Gore's apparent willingness to follow a scorched earth policy, fighting to the death in the courts, Bush may not be in a position to formally declare himself president-elect until the electoral votes are cast on Dec. 18. But even that may not be the end for Gore, whose operatives are actively trying to intimidate Bush's electors, as they failed with Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, in an effort to change their votes. If that effort is successful, Congress will be forced to choose the president, delaying the transition until January.

Hopefully, a final resolution to the presidential contest will be forthcoming within days. But in the meantime, Bush continues to lose transition time that cannot be reclaimed, and must prepare for the worst, in the event that Gore's delaying tactics push off resolution indefinitely.

The biggest problem Bush is going to have is getting background checks done and navigating a Senate confirmation process that may be poisoned by Gore and his allies, in order to embarrass Bush. It now appears that there will be a 50-50 tie between Democrats and Republicans when the Senate reconvenes in January. But from that date until Jan. 20, Gore will continue to be president of the Senate and in a position to break all ties in the Democrats' favor. How this will affect committee organization and a potential congressional role in certifying the Electoral College results remains to be seen.

In any event, it is safe to assume that the Democrats will be looking to frustrate Bush's ability to get quick Senate confirmation of his top appointees. This means that background checks must be even more thorough than usual. Contrary to popular belief, the role of background checks has little to do with national security and almost everything to do with avoiding political disaster. Its purpose is to weed out the Zoe Bairds before their appointments are announced, so that the president is not forced to withdraw them when embarrassing facts about their lives become public.

This suggests that Bush will probably be forced to rely more heavily on experienced Washington hands in staffing his administration, those who have served in government and perhaps been through the confirmation process before. Presumably, any skeletons in their closets will already have been exposed, and their knowledge of how the system works will speed confirmation. This means that Bush will have less of an opportunity to bring in new blood than he might have otherwise hoped.

Another way Bush might help himself is by identifying Clinton people who might be worth keeping on temporarily. After all, he is likely to be under enormous pressure to reach out to the Democrats anyway, and surely there are some assistant secretaries and agency administrators who are just competent, nonideological functionaries. Keeping a few of them around might therefore serve a dual purpose.

Bush should also utilize Congress in his transition planning. He may not have full access to departments and agencies, but Congress does. Bush could ask the Republican leadership to put together a task force of senior congressional staffers who can get transition planning information through their own channels. He might also ask the leadership to fast-track legislation to speed-up the confirmation process, which almost everyone recognizes is excessively long and complicated.

Bush is right to move ahead with a formal transition process, even without Clinton administration cooperation. He cannot afford to wait until Gore has exhausted every possible means of achieving through the courts what he could not obtain in the voting booth. Getting himself prepared to take office on Jan. 20 will be an important test of Bush's leadership. How well he does it will tell the American people much about what they can expect from his presidency.


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