What Happens During a Presidential Transition: Who’s Left in Charge

Tuesday January 17, 2017

I’ve seen some posts here and there around the internet about this massive vacuum that’ll happen on January 20th, as if empty politically-appointed offices will grind the country to a halt. So, in the interest of making sure everyone realizes that our government is stronger and more resilient than that, here is what actually happens once all the agency and department heads leave.

For the most part, all political appointees leave their posts as of inauguration day. The government prepares for months, if not longer, in advance for this, and each department will have a formal line of succession in place for the presidential transition. The succession plan lists all presidentially-nominated, senate-confirmed positions with a hierarchy of who serves in the event of death or resignation. This can go down 3 or 4 people, even more if we’re talking about a department Secretary.

(Well, the government ALWAYS has a line of succession in place, for continuation of government operations in the event of death or disaster, but leading up to a transition, this work gets ramped up.)

SO, on inauguration day, what you see is the most senior career staff step into “acting deputy” roles. (Who can be an “acting officer” is statutory; it’s not just any random employee.) Usually, the senior career employee who steps into that role is the person who reported directly to the political management of the agency — Assistant Secretaries, Associate Administrators, etc.

Rather than a void, actually, what you have are the most experienced and senior career officials now in charge. They likely know the agency and its mission better than any political staff; they may have worked in the agency since the 1980s and have seen more than a few presidential transitions. When a political appointee is finally appointed to that position, this career employee is the most likely to train her incoming boss. There should be no concern about their ability to head up their agency.

However, being career employees who know that their political bosses are a-coming, these acting deputies don’t really spearhead any new policies. Like, they’re not going to go rogue and start working on controversial regulations just because they have the reins. They keep the agency functions going (a lot of what an agency does is rote work that needs to be done, without partisanship (actually, you’d be surprised at how much work is not partisan at all)) and sometimes try to guess how the in-coming administration will want to handle something.

There are exceptions to this. In large departments, you might see politically-appointed Deputy Secretaries stay on past inauguration to become Acting Secretary, usually with the agreement and gratitude of the incoming administration. Yes, even if the incoming administration is a different party. This is, again, for the health of the agency and to ensure continuation of operations. It’s one thing for a career staffer to be the Acting Deputy Administrator for the Administration for Community Living within HHS; quite another to be the Acting Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.

In my experience, and what I’ve heard from other transitions, appointees from prior administrations act with great respect towards the incoming administration and understand their role is to preserve continuity, guide the career staff through the confusion of a transition, and help the incoming Secretary and other political staff get up to speed, not to scheme while they still have power. They will usually resign a few months after the new Secretary has been in place.

So, does that make any of you feel better? The government has got this. The career staff who dedicate their lives to building your roads and airports and mailing your social security checks and defending our country have been preparing for this for months and have this under control.

The day after inauguration day will look much the same as the day before.


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