Opinion

The case for shortening the presidential transition

A disgruntled lame duck can do a lot of damage in two-and-a-half months

He may have been a Founding Father, but John Adams could be every bit as petty as President Trump.

Like Trump, Adams was turned out of the presidency after serving a single term; voters in the 1800 election instead selected his archrival, Thomas Jefferson. Adams skipped Jefferson's inauguration, and his Federalist Party allies rammed a series of last-minute judicial appointments through the Senate. Jefferson was understandably unhappy with the situation, and upon taking office ordered Secretary of State James Madison not to deliver the commissions that would allow some of the new "midnight judges" to take office. One of those appointees, William Marbury, brought a lawsuit. He ultimately lost. But the case, Marbuy vs. Madison, is remembered today as a key milestone in American history — the moment when the Supreme Court asserted its power to declare a law unconstitutional.

There are two takeaways from this story. Despite the pride Americans have in the country's unbroken streak of peaceful presidential transitions, the handover of power from one chief executive to another has been a fraught affair from the earliest days of constitutional government. And messy transitions can sometimes alter the country's path in fateful ways.

Those lessons may be more relevant than ever in 2020. After all, we don't really expect Trump to conduct himself with more decorum than John Adams, do we?

Sure enough, Trump administration officials are doing everything they can to make life difficult for their successors when President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in January. While Trump himself refuses to concede that Biden won the election, his allies are pushing through new environmental regulations to hobble Biden's anti-pollution agenda, moving pandemic stimulus money out of Biden's reach, and racing to strip civil service protections from almost 90 percent of the federal workforce.

That last item could be the most serious, as it potentially would give Trump the power to fire thousands of federal workers in the next few weeks — effectively sabotaging the new administration before it takes over.

Trump "should not be making these changes, period, and certainly not changes this dramatic on [his] way out," Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, told The Washington Post.

These problems were inevitable. As I wrote a few weeks ago, now that networks have declared Biden the winner of the election, Trump has little to lose by behaving badly. The country is at the mercy of an outgoing president who knows how to make trouble.

Logistics are partly to blame. The machinery of American government is huge, a multi-trillion dollar operation with millions of employees. Shifting power from one administration to the next is almost always a logistical nightmare. There are two-and-a-half months between Election Day and Inauguration Day, and new administrations typically need every minute of that time to get up-and-running. A same-day transition, as happens in the United Kingdom, may not be possible here. In the meantime, the outgoing president remains in power until January — even if, like Trump, he has been repudiated by voters.

This doesn't have to be a problem, even when the White House is shifting from one party to the other. The seamless shift from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, for example, has been referred to as the "gold standard" of presidential transitions. But it does require the outgoing president to respect his successor, and the will of the American people. Clearly, that is not the case with Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

It might be time to take a fresh look at how America does its presidential transitions. There is some historical precedent for this: The Great Depression prompted passage of "the Lame Duck Amendment" to the Constitution, moving the new president's inauguration from March to January. The process was refined, with an eye on national security, after the 9/11 attacks. There is room for further improvement. Even if transitions cannot be instantaneous, it is worth examining whether they can be shorter. And in the meantime, Congress might consider the possibility of banning "midnight rulemaking" by outgoing administrations after Election Day.

Any changes will come too late to help Biden, which is a shame. Transitions are difficult, even in the best of times and with the best of departing presidents. Right now, neither condition applies in America.

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