The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
Lost in the headlines about a bitter election campaign is another competition to see who will fill the key positions in the next administration. If incumbent President Trump is reelected, few changes amongst the top jobs are anticipated.
Should Joe Biden send Trump packing, he will need to put his stamp on the huge federal establishment by quickly filling the crucial White House, Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions which impose civilian political leadership on the civil service and military.
Peaceful transitions of power are at the core of American democracy, and the nation has so far passed this test without fail 44 times. This year could well bring a departure from the norm because our 45th chief executive contends that he can lose only as the result of massive voter fraud, related to baseless theories pertaining to the expected rise in voting by mail.
Trump’s obdurance notwithstanding, the transition is well underway. A formal process is required by a 1963 law which establishes structure and funding to ease the government handoff that must be squeezed into a three-month period between the general election and inauguration in late January.
The transition law provides money for both sides to pay staff who themselves will simultaneously undergo tough background checks (my first time through it, I was stunned to get calls from high school friends who had struggled to put me in the best light possible without lying to the FBI!).
A team of top civil servants is tasked to help explain the current state of play in the federal departments and agencies and coordinate with the transition leadership of the candidates. Biden’s team is led by his lifelong friend and chief of staff Ted Kaufman, and is now graced by the presence of Arizonan Cindy McCain among other notables. That is the formal process in a nutshell.
A second transition, the political one, is the terra incognita of our system. It is a backstage competition for powerful jobs, and distinguished citizens who regard themselves as logical candidates best not sit by their phones expecting a call.
Hundreds of professionals and business leaders who have been establishing their partisan credentials for decades are quietly making their cases. It is not unusual that aspirants will hire public relations firms to bring attention and a shine to their careers in the hope that they will be noticed.
Others raise and contribute large sums which are now allowed since the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous decision in the Citizens United case which equated money with free speech and removed all constraints from campaign giving. Still others are current or retired governors and members of Congress, a source heavily depended upon by Democratic administrations.
After the first couple of weeks in Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions, new jobholders might find themselves wondering why they embraced these opportunities so joyfully. Information on their new responsibilities arrives in fire hoses, and even as the office equipment is being assembled, the parade of policy decisions must be attended to. The least of them is likely to have a greater impact on American society than the biggest decision made in their prior lives.
In my own experience as Assistant Secretary of Transportation, I spent my first 30 days assembling a personal staff of almost 50 while trying to absorb detailed briefings on the current operations of six massive agencies of government: the Coast Guard, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Highway Administration, Federal Mass Transit Administration and Occupation and Safety Administration.
I traipsed home exhausted each evening with biblical-size briefing books and for the first 12 months never had a day off or a sure night’s sleep. It wasn’t until one particular Saturday when my wife Nancy and I were awakened by a 2 a.m. action call from a Coast Guard Captain seeking permission to board a foreign vessel that I fully realized what I had bitten off. It was three years before life returned to normal.
What all of those who transition into powerful positions learn is that our country is managed far less by what are called the “electeds” than by a dedicated, talented, nonpartisan civil service corps, so commonly demeaned by the contemporary right wing as “the deep state.”
Far from being the problem, these selfless professionals are truly the glue that holds America together and makes possible the progression of democratic government.
Our long history of largely seamless handoffs between presidential administrations is one of the secrets of America’s success story. Let us hope this doesn’t become yet another victim of our radically devolving norms.
Terry Bracy has served as a political adviser, campaign manager, congressional aide, sub-Cabinet official, board member and as an adviser to presidents.
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