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The Awkward Interval
Our antiquated elective system gives an outgoing President or congressman egregious opportunity for farewells—and mischief
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
The fiasco of the Hoover-Roosevelt relationship in 1932-33 contributed to further realization of the danger of the slow turnover. From this experience did come the precedent that in troubled times the President and President-elect should meet and confer on the nation’s problems; but the experience also suggested the limited accomplishment that could be expected from such talks. Hoover was anxious for Roosevelt’s co-operation in the economic crisis, but since the President was on the scene and confident that he knew what had to be done, his idea of co-operation was that Roosevelt should join in supporting Hoover’s policies. F.D.R. was preoccupied with Cabinet-building and uncertain of what course he wanted to follow, but he was sure that he did not want to bail out Hoover in a way that would commit him later on.
While Hoover and Roosevelt were fencing, Congress was having what was to be its last lame-duck session. Senator George W. Norris, a progressive Republican from Nebraska, had long been outraged by goings-on in these sessions and had been trying to do something about them. Earlier in 1932 his constitutional amendment, bottled up by the Republican leadership for ten years, had finally been approved by the Democratic Congress, and by February, 1933, enough states had ratified it. The Twentieth Amendment’s principal feature was a provision that the terms of representatives and senators begin and end at noon on January 3 rather than in March, and that annual sessions of Congress begin at the same time. Thus congressmen elected in November would take their seats eight weeks later, and there would be no more lame-duck sessions—unless the President called a special session to run between Election Day and January. The amendment also shortened the presidential interval by moving Inauguration Day up from March 4 to January 20. The period from January 3 to 20 was allowed for Congress to count the electoral votes and resolve the contest in the event that two candidates tied or that none received a majority. The congressional schedule was the main thing in the minds of the amendment’s supporters, and shortening the presidential interval from sixteen to ten weeks was a handy extra. Perhaps, if the amendment had been written after rather than before the Hoover-Roosevelt affair, a more drastic curtailment of the interval might have been attempted.
Since World War II there has been a rapid growth of customs and devices for helping bridge the power gap between Presidents. Every administration now offers briefings on the military and foreign situation to the candidates of all major parties. If the President is retiring or has been defeated, he invites the President-elect to the White House for conferences, and arrangements for communication between the incoming and outgoing regimes are carefully worked out. Instead of waiting until the eve of inauguration to announce the Cabinet, as in the old days, modern Presidents-elect are urged to hasten the announcement of their principal appointees, so that these men can begin familiarizing themselves with their duties and selecting their own subordinates. In 1952, for example, Dwight Eisenhower had announced all of his Cabinet appointments by December 1, and in 1960 John Kennedy had completed the job, after a remarkably effective search for talent, by December 17. Men designated for Cabinet and other high offices customarily are invited to confer and even take up quarters in the agencies they will head, well in advance of the inauguration. Task forces are put to work refining campaign promises into specific proposals that the new President can make to Congress shortly after he takes office.
Congress in 1964 passed a Presidential Transition Act which formally declares that orderly transitions in the office of President are required by the national interest. All officers of the government are instructed to take appropriate action to that end. The law also recognizes one of the problems in such efforts—the substantial expenses of the President-elect and the Vice President-elect and of their embryonic administration during a period when they are still technically private citizens—and authorizes the expenditure of up to $900,000 in public funds for such items as rent, telephones, travel, and staff salaries to aid the President-elect’s preparations. To avoid waiting for the electoral votes to be cast and counted, which would defeat the purpose of the act, the Administrator of General Services is authorized to ascertain the “apparently successful candidates” and start providing resources to them after the general election. This law will get its first practical test in 1968-69.