Length of Transition Is a Presidential Issue

Proposed amendment would install president on Dec. 10

JUST outside the White House, President Bush now can watch two huge reviewing platforms being erected to celebrate the January inauguration of President-elect Clinton, the man who took away his job.

All day, the sound of workmen's hammers and electric saws echoes through the executive mansion, a constant reminder to the president and his staff that voters rejected them seven weeks ago.

Mr. Bush clearly dislikes this prolonged and painful 11-week transition process. "I've concluded that the interregnum is too long - too ungenerous and too long," he said unhappily last month.

Now Congress is being urged to do something about it. Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island is renewing his call for a constitutional amendment that would install a newly elected president in office on Dec. 10, approximately one month after election day.

Senator Pell points out that if his amendment were in effect, Mr. Clinton would already be president, his new Cabinet would be selected, his new budget team would be hard at work, and the newly-elected Congress with 110 freshmen representatives would be sitting on Capitol Hill.

Instead, Pell says that in today's fast-moving world, the slow-paced transition period with its lame-duck officials "presents a constant potential for trouble" in both domestic and international affairs.

One fact about the transition is undeniable: Clinton will be stuck with some of Bush's post-election decisions.

The president's dispatch of United States troops to Somalia was a bold and unprecedented humanitarian gesture, for example. But critics note that Clinton gave his support to Bush's decision without benefit of his own secretary of state, secretary of defense, or national security adviser. Because of Bush's action, US troops could be tied up on the African continent for months, or even years, into Clinton's first term.

Then last week, the Bush White House took a step that sparked some concern over China policy. The president dispatched Secretary of Commerce Barbara Franklin to Beijing to fulfill his pledge to end a ban on high-level exchanges between the two nations. He did that even though the winning Democrats, by and large, are much more critical than Bush of China's human-rights policies following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

The Franklin trip also drew fire when it was learned she might announce a deal to sell China a US-made supercomputer as well as jet-engine technology that could be used in cruise-missile development. But both those ideas were dropped.

Despite such examples, some experts say it would be unwise to change the current setup.

Political scientist Fred Greenstein at Princeton University calls Pell's proposed amendment "a bad idea whose time has not come." Though Pell and others fret about the 11 weeks of the Bush-Clinton transition, Dr. Greenstein says: "What strikes me is how short the time is."

He explains that candidates for the presidency emerge from the yearlong campaign "exhausted." Greenstein, an expert on the Eisenhower presidency, notes that after the grueling 1960 campaign, John Kennedy commented that he knew everything about politics, but nothing yet about governing. A transition period can help.

Some Pell amendment supporters say that moving up the inauguration day would force candidates to reveal early who their choices would be for major cabinet posts, such as defense, state, and Treasury.

Greenstein derides that as a "parliamentary notion." It doesn't fit the US system, where the winner is in a much better position to convince the best people to join his team after he has won, rather than while he is still a potentially losing candidate.

Pell insists other arguments tip the balance in favor of an earlier inauguration. In a written statement, he notes that the Jan. 20 inauguration:

* Delays immediate work on new programs mandated by the election.

* Results in the absurd preparation of the budget for the next fiscal year by the outgoing administration, which will be amended within two weeks by the incoming administration.

* Creates uncertainty internationally because foreign governments are unsure ... who speaks for the country...."

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is among those who have spoken in favor of Pell's amendment. In a newspaper column, he described the transition as an interval of "national paralysis."

Dr. Schlesinger recalls that in the midst of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson was extremely worried about the lengthy transition, which was then, prior to the 20th Amendment, four months long.

Wilson decided that if he lost his bid for reelection, he would immediately appoint Charles Evans Hughes, his Republican opponent, as secretary of state. Wilson and his vice president would then resign, and Hughes, as secretary of state, would immediately become president. Wilson's narrow victory made his plan unnecessary.

Meanwhile, Bush listens to the hammers - and waits. A White House aide says: "He's ready to get on with the next phase of his life."

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