As the United States presidential race has narrowed to two major party candidates, the attention of the media and electorate will shift toward the general-election campaign. What may be less evident in the intense focus on campaign strategy is what each candidate is doing to prepare for the transition into office. Although it often happens discretely, candidates begin planning for their presidential transition long before the election, and they don’t do it alone. The people candidates turn to for advice say a lot about the way they will make decisions for the nation and who will be influential if they win the election—whether it’s family members, as with John Kennedy in 1960, leaders of major think tanks, as with Ronald Reagan in 1980, or lobbyists, as with George W. Bush in 2000.
The formal, post-election transition period occurs over the 70 or so days between the November election and the January inauguration. But because the president-elect must make thousands of critical decisions about the organization of government, personnel, and policy, planning starts early.
In the past, Washington traditions required candidates to begin planning secretly; campaigns worried that the press and opponents would criticize early planning as arrogant and presumptuous. When George W. Bush tasked his long-time friend Clay Johnson with assembling a list of potential appointees to his White House staff a year before his electoral victory in 2000, for example, no press announcement was made.
Because of the hidden nature of the process, it has been nearly impossible to figure out who is helping this year’s candidates with transition planning. In May, Donald Trump publicly named Governor Chris Christie to oversee his transition planning but revealed little else about what Christie is doing or who else is involved. Hillary Clinton remains tight-lipped about her transition planning, despite being surrounded by a team of advisers who have served on such teams in the past—including her campaign chair, John Podesta, who oversaw Barack Obama’s transition in 2008.
The lack of transparency about transition planning raises several serious concerns. The most prominent is the influence lobbyists could have over each candidate. Will lobbyists be permitted to recommend who should be considered for key positions, which federal programs should be cut, and how their industry should be regulated? These concerns have an especially great importance in 2016, given the large portion of voters who are incensed by the power of lobbyists and money in politics following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
Lobbyists represent industries and other organizations that stand to benefit—or lose—a lot from a change of administration, agency spending, and federal regulations. While most of the country focuses on the most visible parts of the presidential campaigns, lobbyists focus on the significant but often under-reported decisions that a new administration will make about low-level agency appointees and obscure federal programs, as indicated by the pattern of their donations and focus on lobbying federal agencies.
In the past, lobbyists have leveraged large campaign contributions during the transition period. Many of George W. Bush’s top financial backers were given positions on his transition team, especially lobbyists from the energy industry, and this afforded these industries enormous influence. Steven Griles, an energy-industry lobbyist, contributed to the Bush campaign, was then given a position on the transition team, and was later appointed to a high-ranking position in the Department of Interior. Griles was eventually convicted in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Overall, nearly 100 lobbyists joined Griles on the Bush transition team and some were later appointed to influential positions in his administration.
This type of influence is perfectly legal and to be expected. Federal lobbying regulations are focused primarily on the campaign-contribution limits administered by the Federal Election Commission, along with the disclosures of the time spent influencing sitting members of Congress or federal officials required by the Lobbying Disclosure Act. But lobbyists are perfectly free to advise private citizens running for office and not required to report that time to anyone.
Lobbyists are sensible advisers, since they are often policy experts with previous experience in government. Because of the active revolving door between government and lobbying, some of the most vexing questions candidates face about their potential White House transition can be best answered by lobbyists, from those representing industry to those who advocate for non-profits.
Yet, few laws regulate the transition period and the role of lobbyists, so candidates effectively get to decide the rules on these interactions. For example, in 2008, Obama voluntarily established rules limiting what lobbyists could do on his transition team, including a prohibition on advising agencies they had lobbied in the past. Although it was never to be, Mitt Romney indicated he would adhere to similar practices if elected.
While these were well-meaning steps, many large campaign contributors were eventually appointed to Obama’s transition team, and some ended up appointed to important federal positions. Several lobbyists were even given exceptions to the Obama White House ethics rules, which would have otherwise prohibited them from serving in his administration.
Candidates in 2016 can go further than this to pursue a truly transparent transition period. Right now, Trump and Clinton could publicly announce his or her entire pre-election transition team, something that no candidate has done in the past. They could announce who will be funding their transition team and whether that overlaps with their campaign funders, especially super PACs. And if they truly wanted to be transparent, they could regularly post on a public website the daily meetings held by their transition team, as most elected officials, including the president, now do on a regular basis.
These steps would not themselves limit the potentially harmful influence of money in politics or the outsized power of lobbyists. But they would permit the public to scrutinize this often-unseen dimension of the candidate’s preparation for the White House. Debates, stump speeches, and political advertisements provide only a limited glimpse into how a candidate will govern. A more transparent window into transition planning would give voters the chance to judge the fitness of candidates and their circle of advisers for the complex task of governance over the next four years.
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