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Explained: The GSA’s role in US presidential transition process

Even as he urged his agencies to cooperate in the transition process, US President Donald Trump vowed to continue efforts to overturn the results of the election.

Written by Om Marathe , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: November 25, 2020 7:53:57 am
US transfer of power, US presidential transition, Joe Biden, Donald trump, General Services Administration, Emily Murphy, Joe Biden administration, express explained, indian expressPresident-elect Joe Biden meets virtually with the United States Conference of Mayors at The Queen theatre, in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 23. (Photo: AP)

Weeks after Joe Biden was declared winner of the 2020 US Election, the Trump administration on November 23 finally agreed to begin the country’s presidential transition process. The General Services Administration (GSA), a government agency that plays a crucial role in the transition, has now designated Biden as the apparent winner of the November 3 election.

However, President Trump vowed to continue efforts to overturn the results of the election, even as he urged his agencies to cooperate in the transition process.

Trump said in a tweet, “I want to thank Emily Murphy at GSA for her steadfast dedication and loyalty to our Country. She has been harassed, threatened, and abused – and I do not want to see this happen to her, her family, or employees of GSA. Our case STRONGLY continues, we will keep up the good fight, and I believe we will prevail!”

“Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.”

Transitioning between presidents

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.”

According to the Center for Presidential Transition, the full transition period lasts roughly one year, from April or May of the election year (2020 this year) until 200 days after January 20 of the next year (2021), 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.

This year, the most critical period part of the process –– the around 75-day transition phase –– has been shortened for two reasons: the delay in declaring the election results due to the huge volume of postal ballots cast amid the coronavirus pandemic, and because of President Donald Trump’s continued refusal to concede defeat.

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Where the GSA comes in

As per law, the 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 around $6 million this year, according to Bloomberg.

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. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

Transition 2020

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 appointee.

Emily Murphy, a functionary appointed by Trump who currently leads the agency, had so far declined to certify Biden’s victory, even as the former Vice-President informally proceeded with transition efforts, such as announcing cabinet picks and holding consultations with experts outside the government.

Murphy now appears to have relented under mounting political pressure, as several Republican senators, as well as business and world figures, called for the presidential transition process to start. Another major development occurred on Monday when the crucial state of Michigan certified Biden as its victor.

The letter from Murphy to Biden, as reported by CNN, reads, “Because of recent developments involving legal challenges and certifications of election results, I have determined that you may access the post-election resources and services described in Section 3 of the Act upon request”– referring to the 1963 transition law. Murphy also said she was not “directly or indirectly pressured by any Executive Branch official” in making her decision.

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