Federal

With Election in Doubt, Transition Must Wait

By Joetta L. Sack — November 22, 2000 6 min read
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The presidency wasn’t the only federal position still up in the air last week because of the ballot-counting dispute in Florida. Thousands of political appointments—including about 150 in the Department of Education, from the secretary down to a bevy of confidential assistants—were on hold as well.

At press time last Friday, it was still unclear whether those jobs would go to Democrats or Republicans. But on one point most observers agree: The sooner they get filled, the better.

For most new presidents, their first weeks in office offer an opportunity to push through some top legislative priorities while still basking in the glow of public approval. Fallout from this year’s cliffhanger election, however, could make the next president’s “honeymoon” period unusually short, if he gets one at all, some political analysts predict.

That makes it all the more critical for the president-elect to get his new team in place quickly, said John P. Burke, a political science professor at the University of Vermont who studies presidential transitions and has written several books on the subject.

The delay caused by the Florida vote tally is “definitely going to put [the next president] at a disadvantage,” Mr. Burke said. “The president-elect, under normal circumstances, has enough trouble pulling it all together.”

Sandy Kress, a top education adviser to Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican nominee, agreed with that assessment. “The hard work is clearly on hold,” he said last week. “It poses challenges to both sides.”

One of the first tasks of the new president-elect— whether it’s Vice President Al Gore, the Democrat, or Gov. Bush—will be to appoint a new Cabinet, including a secretary of education.

The Cabinet members and the White House then typically collaborate on choosing other top agency employees, especially those who, like the secretaries, require Senate confirmation. The Education Department has 16 such positions; they include the deputy secretary and various assistant secretaries.

Already Planning

Representatives of both presidential campaigns were reluctant last week to talk about their transition teams and potential Cabinet nominees, but they indicated that they have at least begun thinking about the process.

Mr. Burke said both presidential hopefuls probably started privately mulling over potential nominees several months ago.

“It’s become a tradition that both camps do some amount of pre-election work,” Mr. Burke said.

In 1992, President-elect Clinton named Richard W. Riley as his choice for education secretary on Dec. 21, and Mr. Riley was confirmed by the Senate on his first day on the job. President Bush, who was elected in 1988, kept President Reagan’s last education secretary, Lauro F. Cavazos, in that position. Mr. Cavazos did not have to undergo the confirmation process.

Mr. Reagan, who had hopes of eliminating the agency, waited until Jan. 20, 1981, to name his nominee, Terrel H. Bell.

Mr. Riley, a former governor of South Carolina, was already in charge of Mr. Clinton’s operation to hire new personnel when he was tapped for the Cabinet post, so the process of selecting other top education officials went quickly. The department hired a search firm to identify candidates and conduct preliminary background checks; then Mr. Riley and White House advisers chose the nominees.

“It was almost like doing 12 college-president searches at once, in a month’s time,” recalled Terry K. Peterson, Mr. Riley’s senior counsel, who helped on the transition team. “But we moved very fast.”

The confirmation process typically goes a bit slower. Once a job candidate is chosen, he or she must undergo a background check by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a process that caused some Clinton administration candidates to withdraw, Mr. Peterson said. Then, they undergo confirmation hearings before being submitted to a vote of the full Senate.

In the Clinton administration, that process took an average of 8½ months, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

William L. Smith, a career employee at the Education Department, has seen numerous transitions in his 31 years of working on federal education policy. He predicted that because Republicans hold a slight edge in the Senate, confirmations might move more quickly if Gov. Bush emerges as the winner of the presidential race.

“It really depends upon what the Senate feels about the candidate and the president as to how fast they move,” said Mr. Smith, the director of the department’s empowerment-zone/enterprise-community program.

In addition to the appointees hand-picked by the White House, the Education Department has about 130 other politically appointed jobs, ranging from the chief of staff to the confidential assistants for each office. Those employees are usually chosen by the secretary of education.

Administrations typically look for people with two qualities—loyalty and expertise—to fill those positions, said Terry Sullivan, the associate director for the White House 2001 Project, a group of academics, financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, that studies and advises political appointees.

“One good characteristic is that they’ve been there and carried the water for the president in the campaign,” Mr. Sullivan said. “But there are a range of appointments that require expertise, and in those situations, having participated in a campaign is less important.”

Most of the people at that appointment level are known as Schedule C employees; the Education Department currently has 111 of them. They tend to be young, and they serve, in official terms, “at the pleasure of the president and secretary.” That means they have little job security—but they often have significant behind-the-scenes power.

“They’re essentially the ones who influence the public policy, who have the ear of the decisionmakers,” said Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the department.

The Last Days

As of last week, no political employees at the Education Department have announced their resignations since the Nov. 7 election. According to Mr. Peterson, it was unclear whether any of them might be reappointed under a Gore administration, or whether they would seek to stay.

Regardless of who wins, every political appointee submits a letter of resignation after each presidential election, Mr. Smith said. That was the case even in 1996, when President Clinton was re-elected.

Some of the department’s Schedule C employees, meanwhile, are assured of remaining at the department, thanks to a practice known as “burrowing,” in which such workers change their job status to that of a career employee. A recent report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, showed that three Education Department employees had taken that route between October 1998 and June 2000.

In general, however, most of the department’s political appointees are concentrating more on wrapping up their current duties than on finding their next jobs, Mr. Peterson said.

For one thing, Congress has not yet finished its annual job of approving an education budget, and a lot of money is at stake. Under a tentative agreement reached before the election—but quickly scuttled by Republican leaders in Congress over a provision that had nothing to do with schools—education programs were set to receive a record 21 percent increase for this fiscal year.

“I’ve never seen so many people focused on getting the job done,” Mr. Peterson said. “They’re thinking, ‘Gee, this is a time to make a mark on public education.’ ”

Mr. Riley has vowed to stay at the Education Department until the final hours of the Clinton administration. “After being here a while,” the secretary said in a recent interview, “you can accomplish more in a month than in the six months when you first came, so I’m really going to try to work hard up until January.”

In the meantime, career employees at the department were paying particularly close attention to the extraordinary election process that was still unfolding late last week in Florida county offices and state and federal courthouses. They know that the outcome will determine the political leanings of their future bosses.

“It’s captured everyone’s attention,” Mr. Bradshaw said. “Obviously, the next president sets the policies that trickle down to us.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as With Election in Doubt, Transition Must Wait

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