Sen. Daniel Akaka, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, the federal work force and the District of Columbia, called the Obama transistion one of the smoothest ever. (Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images)
The transition from the Bush administration to that of President Barack Obama was one of the smoothest in history, experts told a Senate hearing Thursday — but its success doesn't guarantee smooth transitions in the future.
"Although some problems were revealed, I believe this was one of the most successful transfers of power to date," said subcommittee chairman Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, during the hearing before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, the federal work force and the District of Columbia.
Obama transition co-chairman John Podesta, who also served as staff secretary during the transition from George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton, called the cooperation between the Obama and George W. Bush administrations impressive, highlighting the Bush national security team's "extensive assistance in assuring the transition occurred as seamlessly as possible."
The man responsible for the 2000 Bush transition, Clay Johnson, said the best way to make sure future transitions are successful is to require that a minimum number of political appointees be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate by a certain deadline.
Johnson said incoming administrations and future Senates should fill 125 of the most time-sensitive positions by August of the administration's first year. The current average is 70 to 100, he said.
Others told the committee that the number of appointments requiring Senate approval should be cut and the vetting process should be streamlined. Veterans of previous transitions also recommended that presidential candidates start transition planning before they're actually elected.
Akaka and others also raised concerns about the slow pace of confirmation of Obama nominations.
"Strict vetting and high standards for nominees are important, but they do create a slow and complicated process," Akaka said.
In the first six months of Obama's presidency, nominees were confirmed for just 38 percent of top-tier positions, said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service. That percentage increased to 52 at nine months and 59 percent at one year. As of April 11, 70 percent of the top-tier positions had been confirmed by the Senate, or 366 nominees. In the meantime, Stier said, Obama has nominated — or said he intends to nominate — another 51.
"No administration can govern at its very best when it is missing senior members of its political leadership," Stier said.
Stier suggested reducing the number of political appointees requiring Senate confirmation.
"There are too many political appointees requiring Senate confirmation, too few resources available for vetting candidates, too much red tape for the nominees to wade through and too little sense of urgency when a sense of urgency is exactly what we need," he said.
Johnson echoed the red-tape concerns, saying about one-third of the information requested at various stages in the vetting process is duplicative. Exploring different ways to gather and share such data would hasten that process and place less burden on the applicant, he said.
The committee is considering legislation that would allow for pre-election transition planning. The bill — proposed by Sens. Akaka; Ted Kaufman, D-Del.; George Voinovich, R-Ohio; and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. — would:
• Enable the General Services Administration to provide office space, communication services, briefings and personnel training to qualified presidential candidates and their teams.
• Allow candidates to establish a transition fund separate from their campaign fund.
• Authorize the president to establish a White House transition council.
• Authorize creation of a council of agency transition directors to coordinate changeover plans.
Stier said he supports the pre-election planning provision.
"Rather than viewing candidates as presumptuous," he said, "we need to shift the mindset of the public and the candidates themselves so that advance planning is perceived as prudent, responsible and necessary activity for anyone pursuing our nation's highest office."
Terry Sullivan, executive director of the White House Transition Project, recommends that candidates start planning for their transitions at least six months before even announcing their campaign. At that point, he says, candidates should set up a staff group not to get them elected — but to start planning for the transition.
"Early is important because there's so much at stake," he http://www.federaltimes.com/article/20100423/AGENCY04/4230304/1008/AGENCY04" target="_blank">says.
Part of that preparation includes working with the GSA, whose Chief People Officer Gail Lovelace testified at the hearing. Her office met with representatives from the campaigns of Obama and Sen. John McCain before the election.
She said they began supporting the Obama transition team at 1 a.m. on Nov. 5, the day after the election.
Justine Jablonska reports for the Medill News Service.