Transition Trouble Ahead

001103 white house with flag superimposed
Whether it's George W. Bush or Al Gore, the next president will have to work at warp speed to prepare to take over the White House in January.

Each passing day in the political deadlock over Florida and the presidency means that Bill Clinton's successor has less and less time to get a new administration off the ground. Never mind the prolonged, bitter election and the most divided Congress in years, the 43rd president will first have to get a firm grip on the basic levers of government itself. Here's a transition to-do list:

  • Jobs. Positions from Cabinet nominees to White House staff to scores of bureaucrats throughout the rest of the government must be filled. Three thousand jobs are at stake, and 600 of them need confirmation by the Senate, which will be divided between the winner's party and the loser's party. The president-elect's team must sift through possible appointees and settle on its choices, many of whom must be cleared by a series of background checks that could take weeks, if not months.
  • Budget. In February, the new president presents a budget proposal to Congress. While Mr. Clinton will submit a plan to Capitol Hill before he leaves the office, the next president would either want to tweak that proposal or submit his own plan, instead.
  • Executive Orders. To set the tone for a new administration, an incoming president prepares a batch of executive orders during the transition period to unleash on the operation of government after Inauguration Day. Come to think of it, that Inaugural Address needs to be done, too.
And so, the longer the deadlock in Florida lasts, the more it slows down the nitty-gritty shifting of power in the Oval Office, no matter which man ultimately wins.

"It's not crippling, but a transition, under the best of circumstances, is an arduous process, and the shortened time frame makes it more so," Heritage Foundation transition expert Alvin S. Felzenberg told the The Washington Post.

At first glance, a President-elect Bush would suffer more from a transition delay than a President-elect Gore. As the first Republican president in eight years, the Texas governor would basically have to start from scratch on his to-do list in order to hit the ground running on January 20. By contrast, Gore, as the vice president in the current Democratic White House, would have more political latitude to retain some Clinton appointees as he hammered out his own administration.

Of course, the all-consuming focus for Bush and Gore now is their political and legal struggle for the Sunshine State. While the government provides millions of dollars and plenty of office space to the president-elect during the transition, that help is currently in limbo.

"The General Services Administration is telling us they have keys to a transition office, but don't know who to give them to - and the FBI wants to talk about clearance procedures for saff, but they don't know who to deal with," Bush communications director Karen Hughes said recently.

And The Post reports that a source close to Gore transition chief Roy Neel said of the vice president's camp, "They are in freeze frame."

One positive outcome from a truncated transition could be that the president-elect and his team will literally have no time to bog themselves in a lot of needless procedural fluff that would make zero difference in organizing a new adminstration.

The downside is that the 43rd president will not have as much time as usual for his political "honeymoon" with the Congress, the press and the rest of the Beltway establishment. That's precious time that either Bush or Gore could have used to smooth partisan edges after the closest election in four decades and the most contested in more than a century.