CREW Deputy Director Donald Sherman submitted testimony for the record to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the presidential transition process, recommending steps that Congress should take to prevent future obstruction by the General Services Administration of the presidential transition process and take accountability for this year’s egregious delay. 

Beyond President Trump’s continuous denial of election results following the 2020 presidential election, the Trump Administration’s conduct, and especially GSA Administrator Emily Murphy’s delay in ascertaining the apparent successful candidates for president and vice president in the 2020 election, has exposed weaknesses in the mechanisms that govern the orderly transition of power.

Last month, the American people elected former Vice President Joe Biden to be the 46th President of the United States. Because the novel coronavirus pandemic forced many more people to vote by mail than had in previous election cycles, a number of states took slightly longer than normal to count all the ballots cast. But by November 7, 2020, four days after Election Day, numerous media outlets, including the Associated Press and Fox News, called the race for President-elect Biden. Breaking with decades of tradition, Murphy waited more than two weeks—until November 23, 2020—to officially begin the transition process by formally ascertaining that Biden was the apparent winner of the election.

Emily Murphy’s delay appeared particularly nefarious since it allowed for Trump’s lies about the election results to proliferate in the absence of a formal transition beginning. The GSA administrator is required by law to ascertain the apparent winner of the presidential election in order to release crucial federal resources and funding to an incoming administration. These funds assist the president-elect in building up the transition staff and housing them in federal office space. Crucially, according to President Trump’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence, it also frees the intelligence community to begin giving the President-elect and the incoming cabinet classified intelligence briefings regardless of the orders of the incumbent President. In this instance, Murphy’s failure to do so in a timely manner prevented members of President-elect Biden’s coronavirus advisory board from consulting federal health officials and accessing important medical data—a failure that could cost lives.

Congress should take immediate action to hold the GSA accountable.

First, Congress must demand transparency and accountability. The Oversight Committee should conduct a thorough investigation into the events of the 2020 presidential transition, which was marked by inexplicable and inexcusable delays and opacity, including looking into whether there was political pressure brought to bear.

Second, Congress should ask the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a review of how GSA’s ascertainment decisions have been made since at least 1992. That year was the last time an incumbent president lost their re-election bid and oversaw a transition to his general election opponent.

Finally, GAO should present its findings and submit specific and tangible recommendations for ways that GSA and Congress could reform ascertainment and other aspects of the transition process to ensure they are initiated promptly, transparently, and without political interference. 

The orderly and efficient transfer of power from one presidential administration to the next is a hallmark of American democracy: it builds public trust by serving as a period of civic reconciliation following a fiercely contested election and by ensuring that the American government continues to function effectively from one president to the next. While the Trump administration and GSA Administrator Murphy failed spectacularly in their mandate to facilitate a smooth transition, Congress now has the responsibility, and the time, to identify and oversee the implementation of concrete policy changes to ensure that this situation never happens again.

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