November 17, 2008

Thoughts On The Interregnum

We are now two weeks after the election, but remain two months from the inauguration of our new president-elect. And as it usually does when we see a change of administrations, the wait seems unacceptably long. Ought it change?

That is the premise of USA Today publisher Al Neuharth’s post on his blog.

No lame-duck president can do anything meaningful after the successor is elected. The time is spent figuring out things like how many presidential pardons to issue, many to convicted political pals. Bill Clinton issued more than 200 pardons from the November 2000 election until his departure on Jan. 20, 2001.

Most presidents-elect know what they want to do about major issues or whom to appoint to major offices by the time they are elected or soon thereafter.
That's why we should move the president's inauguration up to the first Tuesday in December, one month after the election. The new Congress should have its schedule moved from early January to early December. That would allow a few weeks before the holidays to get urgent business done.

Now I think that Neuharth has a point – this length of time seems incredibly long. But this ignores, of course, some of the problems we have seen in just the last couple of elections. For example, the 2000 election ran on for several weeks due to litigation – and as of today, the state of Missouri still has not determined the winner of its electoral votes. And if one looks at the state of Minnesota, where a recount is likely to continue into mid-December in its Senatorial race, one can see where a more extended interregnum might be desirable.

Could you imagine the difficulties caused if we had only four weeks until Inauguration Day but a six week delay in counting and certifying the vote due to a close election? This would make the Bush v. Gore legal issues look like mere speed bumps. In the absence of an electoral vote majority for either candidate, would the race be thrown to the House of Representatives to decide? Would the Speaker of the House become President , either temporarily or permanently? Or would the inauguration be delayed, pending the outcome of the disputed state or states? And regardless, would the shortened period have the effect of hamstringing the new president due to the lack of preparation time he or she would have to prepare after the winner was determined? All of these questions need to be answered before shortening the interregnum, as extended as it may be.

Indeed, even under the best of situations this time is important for a new president. Neuharth himself offers these alternate voices:

"I've been involved in every transition since 1960, and I can attest that Barack Obama will need every one of the 77 days the Constitution gives him to be ready to move into the Oval Office on Jan. 20."

Stephen Hess, author of What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-elect

"If we had a parliamentary system, this proposal would work. Because we don't, it won't. Ten weeks is barely enough to do the minimum needed to get started."

William A. Galston, senior fellow, Brookings Institution, and former adviser to President Clinton

In other words, those who have been actively involved in the process recognize that the current time between election and inauguration is important for facilitating the transition. So unless we seek much more serious alterations to our system (such as Galston’s parliamentary musings), we are left with keeping an extended transition rather than one that is rushed and hurried.

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