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The Presidential Transition Process

A Cornerstone of Free Democracy


Empty Desks to Fill

9,000 Desks to Fill

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Updated November 06, 2008

As one of its proudest achievements, the U.S. government's presidential transition process stands as an example to be followed by emerging democracies around the world. An unfailingly peaceful and respectful transition of power at the highest level of government stands as a key to the ongoing survival of a free democracy.

Despite the apparent ease with which it happens, presidential transitions are a complex process requiring coordination, cooperation and not a small quantity of money.

Oval Office or Personnel Office?
So there you are, starting your first day as President of the United States. What will you do first? Develop a national health insurance program? Slice government spending and eliminate the national debt? Rescue Social Security? Nope. Those chores will have to wait. Right now, you need to begin filling between 6,000 to 9,000 positions that will directly serve your new administration.

Most new presidential administrations manage to fill no more than about 350 positions during their first year in office. Remember that nominations for many of the most critical positions to be filled in the first year -- the secretaries of the Cabinet agencies -- must be approved by the Senate, where you had better hope your political party holds the majority. Considering that filling all executive branch positions requires finding competent people, negotiating with them, clearing their backgrounds, and getting all the paper work done, it's not surprising that so few positions are filled in the first year.

Sadly, but truly, most new presidential administrations find it very difficult to get much "change" done right away when their first two years are spend hiring the help they need to do the job.

Most new presidents being the transition process by filling their White House staff positions first, since quickly establishing clear lines of responsibility and communications -- internal and external -- greatly speeds the overall process. The average presidential transition takes about 80 days, with 70 days spent hiring the White House staff. President Clinton filled his White House in 73 days, while in 2000, President George W. Bush got the job done far faster.

Where Can You Find These Jobs?
All positions to be filled by presidential appointment are listed in the "Plum Book." Every four years, just after the presidential election, the "United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions," commonly called the Plum Book is published alternately by the House and Senate. The Plum Book is a listing of over 9,000 civil service leadership and support positions in the Legislative and Executive branches of the Federal Government that may be subject to noncompetitive appointments. These positions include heads of federal agencies and their immediate subordinates, policy executives and advisors, and aides who report to these officials.

Funding and Facilitating the Transition
Before 1963, the new president's political party funded the transition process. Due to inflation and a realization that a swift and smooth transition was vital to good government, Congress passed the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 (PTA) authorizing funding for incoming presidential administrations. The act was amended by Congress in 1976, to increase the authorization for a presidential transition to $3 million, with $2 million available to the president-elect and vice president-elect and $1 million to the outgoing president and vice president.

In 1988, Congress enacted the Presidential Transitions Effectiveness Act to increase federal funding to $5 million to support a change of administrations. Of this total, $3.5 million was authorized to be appropriated for services and facilities to the president-elect and vice president-elect. The outgoing president and vice president were authorized $1.5 million in federal funds. A total of $250,000 would be returned to the Treasury if the outgoing vice president were subsequently elected president. These funds were authorized to be increased in future transitions to accommodate inflation. The new legislation also amended the PTA to require that private contributions and names of transition personnel be publicly disclosed.

Finally in 2000, Congress enacted the Presidential Transition Act of 2000, which authorizes funding for the training or orientation of people the incoming president intends to appoint to certain key positions in the new administration.

Acknowledgement: This material was adapted from Terry Sullivan, Nerve Center: Lessons on Governing from the White House Chiefs of Staff. Texas A&M University Press. See details on http:\\WhiteHouseTransitionProject.org -- The White House Transition Project.

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