It Is Not 1789

19 November 2020


Cogito Ergo Non Serviam

Shorten the Presidential Transition


The American Constitution dates from the 1780s, when the fastest a person could travel was the speed of a horse, or perhaps a sailing ship if the wind cooperated. So, when the Founders established arrangements for the transition from one chief executive to another, they took into account the difficulties of travel. Now, the Senators and Congressmen from Hawaii can be in Washington the next day, and satellite communications combined with the internet mean the news travels instantly. As a result the nation no longer needs a couple of months to prepare a transition. Moreover, Mr. Trump is demonstrating just how dangerous the transition period is. It must be shortened to days, if not hours.

Back in the 1780s, the idea was that there would be November elections followed by electors meeting in December. Then, Congress convened in January to count elector ballots and determine who the president would be. Then, the news had to travel from Washington to the various states, the new president had to make travel plans, and it was no surprise that inauguration day was in March. Thus it remained until 1937, when it was moved to January 20 with a constitutional amendment.

In other democracies, there is no awkward interregnum even remotely resembling America's. In Britain, the election is on Thursday, and on Friday, the nation knows who won. By Saturday, the new PM is installed in Number 10 Downing Street, movers having packed up the out-going occupant in a few hours.

Much is made of the sheer size of the prospect of taking power from one president and handing it to another. So many appointments must be made, so much has to be learned. This is partially true, but in fact, it is largely unncessary. It is not a reason to retain the 11 weeks of transition but rather it is a pretext not to change.

Throughout the campaign, candidates get briefings on classified matters. A further 11 weeks of such briefings will help, to be sure, but the fact is that the president-to-be is not suddenly learning all of the operations of the US government.

There are some 8,000 political appointments that a president can make. They actually exist in a single binder commonly called the "Plum Book," because it contains all the plum jobs the president can hand out. Of course, that takes time. One must also ask if the country is best served by having political appointees in so many positions. A new president is certainly entitled to choose the Secretary of Defense and State, the White House Chief of Staff and the National Security Advisor. Is it necessary to have political appointees serve as Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Labour and Education? Is that even desirable?

Parliamentary systems have shadow cabinets, members of the opposition who speak on specific subjects such as defense, justice, foreign affairs, etc. Lacking this kind of arrangement, America may do well to develop such a system. However, the current arrangement has people being appointed to the cabinet and awaiting senatorial approval during the transition. The search is not months long, and indeed, Mr. Biden has already chosen his chief of staff.

Parkinson's Law seems to kick in here. The work to be done expands to fill the time allotted to do it. If the transition is 11 weeks, it will take 11 weeks. If it is 11 days, it will not be appreciably worse.

What is bad is the current system under which one president can act irresponsibly to undermine his successor for weeks on end.

© Copyright 2020 by The Kensington Review, Jeff Myhre, PhD, Editor. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written consent. Produced using Ubuntu Linux.

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