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It's transition time, but how does it work and when will Biden pick his team?

It’s 71 days until Biden’s inauguration, so there’s much to be done.

US President-elect Joe Biden.
US President-elect Joe Biden.
Image: Twitter

WE NOW KNOW that Joe Biden will become US President on 20 January 2021, but there is much that can and will happen before that.

For obvious reasons, this period is known as the presidential transition and it is seen as an indication of how the incoming president intends to govern.

During the process, the new administration prepares to assume control of government departments, with the president nominating some or all of their cabinet during this period also.

Whether transitions are smooth and amicable or difficult and disagreeable largely depend on the people involved, but US law dictates that much of the work can be done non-politically.

The Presidential Transition Act of 1963 essentially means that career civil servants working in the various departments have significant power in transferring data and expertise to incoming officials.

This law is designed to reduce potential political fighting by taking some of the transition-related activities away from incoming and outgoing officials.

In addition, there is also the non-partisan Center for Presidential Transition that has already urged Donald Trump’s outgoing administration to “immediately begin the post-election transition process” as laid out under the act.

Despite this however, Reuters explains that the transition process cannot shift into high gear until the government’s General Services Administration (GSA) certifies the winner.

Until then, the GSA can continue providing Biden’s team with offices, computers and background checks for security clearances, but they cannot yet enter federal agencies.

The Associated Press reports that the GSA’s Trump-appointed administrator, Emily Murphy, has not started the process of formally recognising the President-elect.

Biden has already gone about beginning the process however, with the President-elect launching a transition website called ‘Build Back Better’. The website lists a number of priorities for the incoming administration, with Covid-19 as the first such priority.

Biden yesterday launched a Covid-19 advisory board that he says will help guide the transition team in planning for the President-elect’s federal response to the virus.

On the campaign trail, Biden promised to “take the muzzle off our experts” and put a national strategy in place to “get ahead” of the virus and end the pandemic crisis.

Also on the Biden-Harris Transition Team website, it lays out that the team is to be “co-chaired” by Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

It doesn’t name any other individuals but it is likely that the team will be fleshed out over the coming days and weeks.

Four years ago, then-governor of New Jersey Chris Christie had been chair of Trump’s transition team before he was jettisoned when his involvement in a local scandal was revealed.

During the Trump transition in late 2016, much of the business was apparently carried out from Trump Tower, with the comings-and-goings from Trump’s New York base closely watched by the media.

president-elect-donald-trump-and-mitt-romne-at-dinner Trump and Romney during the former's transition in November 2016. Source: PA Images

Among those to visit Trump during that period were former vice president Al Gore and rapper Kanye West. There was also the meme-worthy dinner Trump had during his transition with Reince Priebus and Mitt Romney.

Of those four, only Priebus became part of Trump’s administration, serving as the first of four chiefs of staff Trump had during his presidency.

A White House Chief of Staff is one of the major appointments Biden will have to make as he takes up office, but he will also have to go about selecting a cabinet.

Unlike the Chief of Staff, cabinet nominations will have to be approved by the US Senate.

The new Senate is not due to sit until January so no nomination hearings will not be heard until mid-January at the earliest, but the nominations themselves could be made in the coming weeks.  

Crucially, there are still four seats of the 100 seats in the Senate that remain unfilled, with Democrats and Republicans currently holding 48 each.

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Of the four that remain, votes are still being counted in two of them, with two others to be decided by head-to-head-elections in Georgia on 5 January.

Those two run-off votes could decide the balance of power in the Senate, and if Republicans again have a majority they could slow Biden’s cabinet nominations.

The balance of power could even influence Biden’s picks, with the President-elect perhaps eager to avoid bruising confirmation battles should he make choices that could anger Republicans.

The question over who Biden chooses for his team has already provoked debate within the Democratic Party, with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez telling the New York Times that transition appointments would “send a signal of who the administration credits with this victory”.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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