Handling the transition

Posted: Oct 25, 2000 12:00 AM
As the final days of the presidential campaign wind down, experienced Washington hands are starting to turn their attention to the transition. They know that key decisions are made in the days, even hours, after the election is over that often set the tone for an administration for years to come. These decisions mainly involve personnel, but also organization, legislation and the establishment of priorities. How Al Gore and George W. Bush handle these issues will tell a great deal about what kind of president they will be long before they take the oath of office. At this point, almost nothing is known about Gore's or Bush's transition operations, except that they exist. Gore's operation is being spearheaded by his longtime close adviser Roy Neel, while Bush's is being managed by his gubernatorial chief of staff Clay Johnson. It is safe to assume that neither have a clue as to what the job really entails, and one of them is going to get a real baptism by fire very soon. I say this not to put down Mr. Neel or Mr. Johnson. It is just that transitions happen very seldom, and each is different. Moreover, they are so intense that they can be likened only to military combat. One can study warfare all one wants, but until one actually experiences being under fire one will never really know what it is like. So, too, with transitions. One can never truly know what one is like until experiencing it first hand. If Bush wins, we will have the first transfer of power from a Democratic to a Republican administration in 20 years. Transitions when there is a change in party are always special because it is a foregone conclusion that every political appointee will be fired and that the slate will be wiped clean as far as policy is concerned. In short, much of the U.S. government must be rebuilt from scratch in less than three months. Of course, there is a large permanent bureaucracy that will ensure that the Social Security checks are mailed out and the mail is delivered. So, for most Americans, a change in power in Washington will have no impact on their lives whatsoever. But for those who work inside the beltway, who make their livings directly or indirectly off the government, life is going to change radically very soon. The changes will affect not just the thousands of political appointees who may lose their jobs even if Gore wins, but the thousands more who labor in the media, law firms, public relations firms, lobbying firms, think tanks, corporate government affairs offices and trade associations. If Bush wins, these organizations will quickly begin to shed their Democrats and hire Republicans to replace them. And if Gore wins, they will start to replace Clinton people with Gore people wherever possible. A word of advice to those presently working in the Clinton administration: Don't assume that your job is safe if Gore wins. Just because there will be no change in party control does not offer protection. I know this from personal experience in the Reagan-to-Bush transition in 1988. The Bush people were just as brutal about firing the Reagan people as Michael Dukakis would have been had he won. Indeed, in many cases, Reagan appointees were fired even when there was no Bush person available to fill the slot immediately. I believe that President Bush badly mishandled his transition. Every Reagan appointee -- among which I was one -- knew they would likely be replaced eventually, but no one imagined the blood bath that occurred almost instantly after Jan. 20, 1989. It left very bad feelings that not only contributed to Bush's loss in 1992, but also hurt the Bush administration by making its first year in office more difficult than it needed to be. For this reason, I believe that Gore would do well to temporarily keep on as many Clinton appointees as possible, filing positions with his own people mainly through attrition. My guess is that he will be able to get his own people into place about as quickly as he would if he followed President Bush's example, but with far less animosity and ill feeling. This advice most certainly will not be followed, however, because Gore is going to want to put his own stamp on the government and separate himself from Clinton as soon as possible. Moreover, he is going to have thousands of contributors and supporters pressuring him for spoils, in the form of jobs, that will be impossible to ignore. Should he win, Bush will face the same pressure, only it will be even more intense. Republicans have been in the wilderness for 8 years, and there is a much larger pent-up demand for appointments. Not only are there those who have never had the opportunity to serve in a Republican administration, but there are those who served previous administrations in low- or mid-level positions who feel that now is their chance to reach the top rungs -- cabinet secretary, agency administrator, regulatory commission chairman, etc. Some advice for those hoping to serve either Gore or Bush: In a few weeks, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee will be publishing a book commonly known as the "plumb book." It is a comprehensive list of every political appointment in the federal government. Read it carefully, and target the position you want (and hopefully are qualified for) as specifically as possible. The presidential personnel office is going to be bombarded with resumes from people literally willing to do anything. With thousands of jobs to fill, those who know exactly what they want will do far better than those who don't.