This is Going On Way Too Long

Americans sometimes like to think of ourselves as a new country, but that conceit is no longer accurate in a world where many countries have only been independent internationally recognized states since some time after the end of World War II. There are now several ways that our country is showing its age. One of them is this extended transition period in which eleven weeks elapse between the election and beginning of the new president’s term. Many Americans today may not know that when the Constitution was first crafted, the transition period was even longer with the new president taking office in early March. Of course, when the country was founded, people traveled by horse and the telephone had not yet been invented, so people and communication did not move at today’s pace. At that time, finding out who won the election and identifying and contacting people to serve in the new administration took a lot more time than today.

The date for the inauguration of the new president was changed to its current date beginning in 1933, but the eleven week transition period is still too long, and not just because of Donald Trump. Trump has used this extended transition period to spread disinformation about election fraud, explore preemptive pardons for his closest family and political enablers, accelerate executions of prisoners and continue the grift, this time by soliciting campaign contributions from his supporters to help him challenge the outcome of the election. We should never expected anything else from Trump, but this behavior is still very damaging to the social and political fabric of the country.

In addition to continuing to use the White House for his personal and political gain while heightening divisions and tensions among the American people, Trump continues to simply ignore the Covid-19 crisis which is now killing more than 2,000 Americans on many days. He has evinced even less interest in governance now than he did before the election, but the cost of that in lives lost is substantial. The American people gave Biden a decisive victory in this election, but we still have to wait for our will to be honored while a president free of responsibility and with a basket full of pardons at his disposable continues to damage our country.

Trump is, as usual, the extreme, but even with a less divisive and destructive outgoing president, the eleven week transition period would be too long. Even presidents who conduct themselves decently in the waning days of their time in office are still lamest of ducks unable to work on major legislation, with less influence internationally and no leverage with congress. In other words while Trump’s erratic and avaricious behavior is the worst case transitional scenario, a better case means essentially having no president for the transition period.

Because of the enormity of the executive branch, some time is needed for a real transition. Key staff has to be identified, many members of the incoming administration need to be briefed by members of the outgoing administration and other substantive matters need to be addressed. Therefore, a new president cannot be expected to take over the day or even the week after the election. That would be chaotic and ineffective, but in an age of airplane travel and the internet significantly shortening the transition process is both essential and doable. 

The electoral college votes in mid-December after the election. This year that will occur on December 14th. After that , Congress must verify the results in early January, but that could also be moved up with the new president taking office perhaps on December 20th, one month earlier than occurs now. There would have to be exceptions for contingencies that send the election to the House of Representatives, but that has never happened in modern times. 

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Associate Adjunct Research Scholar, Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University an co-host The Election Show