The perils of a delayed transition

Legal distractions and an abridged transfer of power may slow the next president's reactions to any crises.

The election struggle has now gone on so long that the next president will likely face the shortest, most difficult transition period in modern US history.

Partly due to this fact - and partly as a gesture to assert authority - George W. Bush has begun to more openly assemble a governing team. He's dispatched running mate Dick Cheney to Washington, and is asking for private contributions to fund a D.C. transition office.

But at this point, either Mr. Bush or Al Gore would find it hard to fully staff an administration by early 2002. And legal battles over Florida's votes could take time and attention away from issues such as deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian relations.

"We're having this crisis of the chads, and school buses are being blown up in the Middle East," says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the Hudson Institute here. "It's very likely that by Jan. 20 the new president will have to deal with a significant world crisis." The official transition period in the 2000 election cycle was supposed to last 73 days. Now, the longest it could possibly be is 56 days - and that's if the current uncertain state of affairs is resolved by Saturday, the day after the US Supreme Court hears the Bush campaign challenge to Florida ballot hand counts.

At time of writing it appears likely that legal wrangling will continue for days, if not weeks. Thus, it is anyone's guess when someone can claim the $5.3 million in US funds set aside to cover transition costs, as well as the key cards to the General Service Administration's now-empty transition headquarters in downtown Washington.

This doesn't mean transition planning is at a standstill. Both campaigns likely had a small cluster of workers thinking about assembling government teams even before election day. If history is any guide, both Bush and Mr. Gore likely have a good idea of who at least some of their senior staff and cabinet members would be.

Bush has already announced that former Secretary of Transportation Andrew Card would be his White House chief of staff. The Bush campaign is likely to leak to the press a steady stream of possible cabinet names in coming days, as it seeks to establish itself as the presumed incoming administration.

Bracing for the resume onslaught

But the real problem isn't finding a secretary of State. It's filling positions such as deputy undersecretary of State for Obscure Yet Still Important Affairs. The new administration has about 3,000 political appointees to place throughout the government, with 600 of those requiring Senate confirmation. Sorting through resumes - they're likely to get at least 150,000 - and completing security checks take time.

For Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, their teams weren't fully staffed until the October following their inaugurations. Experts say the timetable for the next national leader has now been pushed back months, into 2002 - a quarter of his term.

"We will pay a heavy price for the delays in planning and assembling the next administration," said Mr. Cheney Monday.

Then there are priorities. The new president must submit a budget to Congress in February. He must decide which campaign proposals to press. He must try to change his image from candidate to national leader, in weeks.

He'll need to be alert, too, for landmines. President-elects learn quickly that they can become embroiled in policy disputes even before taking the oath of office.

Six days before his inauguration, Mr. Clinton had to issue a statement saying he would continue to repatriate Haitian boat people, in an effort to stem a tide of rafters that threatened to overwhelm south Florida. Bush or Gore may yet have to develop an instant policy in reaction to a Middle East development or an arms offer from Russia President Vladimir Putin.

The real problem?

Then there is, well, call it the current unpleasantness.

"I don't think it's the truncation of the transition that's the problem," says John Burke, a political scientist at the University of Vermont. "It's the polarized environment that will make it difficult for whoever becomes president."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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