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Expert Testifies That General Services Administration Offered Inadequate Grounds for Denying Access to Transition Funds and Offices to Bush-Cheney Ticket

The General Services Administration did not use appropriate reasons for denying the Bush-Cheney ticket access to transition funds and offices under the 1963 Presidential Transition Act, according to an expert on presidential transitions.

“Transition funds and assistance can be released to the apparent successful candidate even in an exceedingly close election, whether measured by popular vote or electoral vote,” Paul C. Light, senior adviser to the Presidential Appointee Initiative and director and vice president of the Governmental Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, testified Monday before the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information, and Technology.

Tracing the legislative history of the Presidential Transition Act, Light said in his prepared testimony, “It is clear… that Congress intended to provide transition support to the winning candidates well before absolute certainty is reached by the Electoral College on December 18.”

He added, “The authors of the act understood the trade-off between absolute certainty and the need to begin the arduous transition to governing.” Congress was absolutely clear, Light testified, that the administrator of the GSA, not the outgoing president or the White House chief of staff, has the authority to begin dispensing funds, office space, and other assistance to the apparent election winner.

Light also made clear that the GSA administrator has broad authority to withhold funds and assistance in close elections. However, he testified, “Merely having a close or contested election is not enough to merit denial of funds and assistance” without an adequate justification.

Light said that the GSA administrator could have made one of two decisions regarding the 2000 election: (1) declare the apparent successful candidates to be Bush and Cheney, thereby releasing the funding and assistance provided under the 1963 act, or (2) declare the 2000 election to be so unlike past close elections such as 1960 (in which John F. Kennedy won the popular contest by 114,000 votes) or 1888 (in which Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote to Benjamin Harrison) that he could not justify releasing funds.

“Unfortunately, the administrator of the General Services Administration reached neither conclusion,” Light testified. “His agency first created an implied definition of ‘apparent winning candidate’ that required a concession speech by the losing candidate, then created a second implied definition that required the absence of uncertainty as a prerequisite for apparency.”

Both of these definitions, Light said, “would give future losing candidates extraordinary authority to delay transitions through legal challenges, whether legitimate or frivolous.”

Light urged the subcommittee to take action “to clarify the terms governing release of transition funds and assistance in future campaigns.”

The full text of Paul Light’s testimony is available on the Brookings Institution website.

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