US president-elect Joe Biden. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE
US president-elect Joe Biden. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE

It may surprise Americans to learn that a crucial roadblock standing between president-elect Joe Biden and the White House is the US general services administration (GSA) administrator Emily Murphy.

Who? Precisely.

By law, the head of the GSA is charged with recognising “the apparent successful candidate” in a presidential election and (if necessary) disbursing crucial funds and resources — such as office space, computers, phones, printers and so on — to the incoming administration to smooth its transition. This allows the new team to meet with executive-branch agencies, access essential documents, and otherwise hit the ground running after inauguration day.

True to form, the Trump administration is blocking this standard bit of civic diplomacy. Murphy has yet to acknowledge Biden’s victory. The $6.3m Congress has appropriated for the process has yet to be doled out, and Biden’s team has been left to make the best of things. (“I think it will not help the president’s legacy,” Biden said Tuesday, summoning perhaps more tact than the situation called for.)

While holding up the decision aligns with Trump’s claim that the election isn’t yet decided, his assorted legal challenges have no prospect of success and releasing the resources wouldn’t amount to a concession anyway. The delay is simply a slight to the rightful victor, an affront to voters and an assault on the norms that usually guide the transfer of presidential power. It will only make life harder for the transition team and hence for the country.

It also raises serious national security concerns. Without the administrator’s say-so, Biden can’t receive top-level military and intelligence briefings. His staff won’t have access to secure facilities or sensitive documents, and his transition team can’t request background checks or security clearances for potential nominees. All this will make it more difficult for the next president to promptly appoint officials to critical positions.

This isn’t a theoretical worry, nor does it apply to only one party: the September 11 commission found that delays following the disputed 2000 election — which cut the normal transition time in half — may have impeded George W Bush’s national security team from getting key personnel in place in time.

In due course, the law governing this process should be revised. Congress should rethink its decision to place such a consequential decision in the hands of a single anonymous bureaucrat, and to leave the criteria for making the ascertainment as vague as possible. In particular, it should specify how and when funds should be distributed in the event of a close election. It should also consider that this may not be the last administration to leave office lacking goodwill and respect for the constitution, and that adversarial transfers of power could become a new norm of American politics. 

A more immediate concern is stability of the government. In addition to his baseless claims about the election, Trump has been busily ousting key officials across the executive branch in favour of pliant appointees. Cabinet members are musing about staying on for another term. Campaign officials are blithely alleging fraud and other serious misconduct without offering any evidence. No-one imagined this president would leave office with grace, maturity or civic-mindedness. Yet he seems intent on confirming the worst expectations.

Republicans in Congress, for their part, might be expected to prioritise steadiness and prudence at such a moment. Instead, with a few notable exceptions, they’re mostly playing along with Trump, helping to convince a significant segment of the electorate that American democracy is a sham in the process. The harm this might cause doesn’t seem to factor into their thinking.

The good news is that none of this will have any bearing on the outcome of the election. States will count their votes and certify the winner. The electoral college will cast its ballots on December 14. On January 20, Biden will be inaugurated, and Trump will be a private citizen. But it’s deeply wrong that so much needless damage is being done in the meantime.

Bloomberg

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