The crux of a presidential transition is the transfer of executive power from the incumbent to the President-elect. Yet the transition process encompasses a host of activities, beginning with pre-election planning and continuing through inauguration day. The process ensures that the federal government provides resources to presidential candidates’ transition teams, and, eventually, the President-elect’s team; and includes close coordination between the outgoing and incoming Administrations. The Presidential Transition Act (PTA) of 1963, as amended, established formal mechanisms to facilitate presidential transitions and authorizes the Administrator of General Services to provide facilities and services to eligible presidential candidates and the President elect. A presidential transition facilitates the establishment of a new Administration and prepares it to govern. Additionally, as noted by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in a report on S. 1172 (114th Congress, Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015), planning for a presidential transition helps to ensure the nation’s security.
The smooth and orderly transfer of power generally is a notable feature of presidential transitions, and a testament to the legitimacy and durability of the electoral and democratic processes. Yet, at the same time, a variety of events, decisions, and activities contribute to what some may characterize as the unfolding drama of a presidential transition. Interparty transitions in particular might be contentious. Using the various powers available, a sitting President might use the transition period to attempt to secure his legacy or effect policy changes. Some observers have suggested that, if the incumbent has lost the election, he might try to enact policies in the waning months of his presidency that would “tie his successor’s hands.” On the other hand, a President elect, once in office, and eager to establish his policy agenda and populate his Administration with his appointees, will be involved in a host of decisions and activities, some of which might modify or overturn the previous Administration’s actions or decisions.
The President’s authority to exercise power begins immediately upon being sworn into office and continues until he is no longer the officeholder. By the same token, while congressional oversight of the executive branch is continuous, some activities may take on special significance at the end or beginning of an Administration. The disposition of government records (including presidential records and vice presidential records), protections against “burrowing in” (which involves the conversion of political appointees to career status in the civil service), the granting of pardons, and the issuance of “midnight rules” are four activities associated largely with the outgoing President’s Administration. The incumbent President may also submit a budget to Congress, or he may defer to his successor on this matter. Continuing this transition process, the first actions of a new President generally focus on establishing the priorities and leadership of the Administration. These can include executive orders, appointments to positions that require Senate confirmation as well as those that do not, and efforts to influence the pace and substance of agency rulemaking.
Depending upon the particular activity or function, the extent and type of Congress’s involvement in presidential transitions may vary. As an example of direct involvement, the Senate confirms the President’s appointees to certain positions. On the other hand, Congress is not involved in the issuance of executive orders, but it may exercise oversight, or take some other action regarding the Administration’s activities.
“Presidential Transitions: Issues Involving Outgoing and Incoming Administrations,” CRS Report RL34722, May 17, 2017 (57-page PDF)
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