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Monday, November 30, 2020

Explained: How presidential transition in the US works

This year, the transition phase has been shortened for two reasons ––delay in election results due to the huge volume of postal ballots, and because of Trump’s continued refusal to concede.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: November 10, 2020 9:12:24 am
US presidential elections, US transfer of power, joe biden, donald trump, BuildBackBetter.com, Biden transition team, Emily Murphy, express explained, indian expressPresident-elect Joe Biden takes notes during a meeting with his COVID-19 advisory council, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo: Carolyn Kaster)

With Joe Biden declared winner of the 2020 US presidential election by multiple news agencies, the Democratic leader’s transition team is now in the process of laying the groundwork for the incoming Biden-Harris administration.

Last week, the Biden transition team launched its website–BuildBackBetter.com– and started social media handles. The Biden-Harris Presidential Transition said on Twitter, “The work ahead in the next 73 days will be the foundation for an administration that puts the health, safety, and character of our communities first.”

How a presidential transition takes place

The peaceful transfer of power is considered a cornerstone of US democracy, and transitions between presidents are governed by the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 and its amendments. As per Section 1, the Act has been designed to “promote the orderly transfer of the executive power in connection with the expiration of the term of office of a President and the inauguration of a new President.”

Under the law, the candidate who is running for a first term has to set up a transition organisation well in advance to begin preparing for a possible administration, and the incumbent also needs to start planning for his or her second term.

According to the Center for Presidential Transition, the entire transition period lasts roughly one year, from April or May of the election year until 200 days after January 20 of the next year, when the new administration is inaugurated. The period until election day is called the “planning” phase; from election until inauguration the “transition” phase; and the final being the “handover” phase.

As per law, the most critical period part of the process– the 75 days-odd transition phase– kicks off when the winner of the presidential race is “ascertained” by the General Services Administration (GSA), a US government agency that is responsible for managing federal property and for supporting the basic functioning of federal agencies.

After the GSA certifies the winner, the transition team can start preparing for a new administration with access to government agencies and funds for transition– worth $9.9 million this year.

Even before the election, for a considerable period, the GSA can by law provide transition teams with office space, computers and background checks. Transition team members cannot, though, enter federal agencies until the GSA certifies their candidate as the winner. This election season, Biden’s transition team leased office space with the GSA in September.

Also in Explained | What obstacles potentially stand between Joe Biden and the presidency?

When the transition phase would begin this year

This year, the transition phase has been shortened for two reasons– the delay in declaring the election results due to the huge volume of postal ballots cast during the coronavirus pandemic, and because of President Donald Trump’s continued refusal to concede defeat to Biden.

In the transition process, although career civil servants play a major role in running the transfer of data to members of the incoming administration, the decision to “ascertain” a winner lies with the GSA’s administrator, a political functionary. Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee who leads the agency, has so far declined to certify Biden’s victory.

Even in the past, transition phases have taken several days to begin. During the 2000 election, when the fate of the race hinged on electoral votes in Florida, the outgoing Bill Clinton administration did not ascertain George W. Bush’s victory until December 14 when the US Supreme Court delivered its verdict in Bush v Gore.

Before 1933, the transition phase was even longer–until March 4– but was shortened to January 20 by the 20th Amendment to the US Constitution. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

Biden’s political challenges during the transition

As president-elect, Biden would be able to name over 4,000 political appointees, 1,200 of whom would require a confirmation from the US Senate– the upper chamber of the US Congress where the Republicans are expected to hold on to their majority, unless dislodged by the Democrats in the Georgia runoff elections in January 2021.

With Republicans controlling the Senate, Biden may find it challenging to get progressive members of the Democratic party, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, confirmed to cabinet positions.

At the same time, Trump, who has shown little willingness to accept a Biden victory, may continue to implement policies until January 20 that would not sit well with Biden.

Also read | Explained: Why Joe Biden has his work cut out in fighting the new Covid-19 spike in US

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