November 20, 2020

Udall and Heinrich to GSA: Stop Playing Politics with Presidential Transition

The General Service Administration’s unprecedented refusal to provide transition resources to the incoming Biden-Harris administration will cost lives in pandemic response and endangers national security

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) sent a letter along with 38 other senators to General Services Administration (GSA) Administrator Emily Murphy, calling on her to end the unprecedented delay in recognizing the American people’s decision to elect Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris as the next president and vice president. Administrator Murphy was nominated to her position by President Donald Trump. 

Murphy’s decision denies the incoming Biden-Harris administration access to the transition resources that U.S. law has designated for a smooth transfer of power. Delaying the process, known as “ascertainment”, creates unacceptable risks to national security, as the bipartisan 9/11 Commission found that the shortened transition following the 2000 recount created serious vulnerabilities, including delays related to key national security appointments. The delay also further undermines the federal government’s pandemic response efforts, even as more than 250,000 Americans have died.  

“The United States is in the midst of a pandemic that has now claimed over 250,000 lives, with the number of new cases rising daily. Our country also faces a number of ongoing threats, including physical and cyber attacks from foreign actors, violence from domestic extremists, and natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes,” the senators wrote.

“The GSA Administrator’s ascertainment of a President-elect is also critical for agencies’ willingness to share information with the transition team, including classified information, as well as for the expeditious processing of security clearances for candidates for high-level national security positions. Your delay in acknowledging Vice President Biden’s status as President-elect could undermine efforts by the incoming Administration to meet the needs of the American people in a time of national emergency,” the senators continued.

“The results of this election are clear. Vice President Biden will be the next President of the United States, and Senator Harris will be the next Vice President. It is past time to recognize the will of the American people so that the work of government can continue,” the senators underscored.

Under the Presidential Transition Act, GSA is charged with providing resources and support to the President-elect and Vice President-elect so they can be ready to govern from day one. Administrator Murphy must complete the ascertainment process to allow the President-elect’s transition team to receive needed information from agency officials at public health and national security agencies, ensure incoming national security officials can receive background checks and access to classified information and provide federal funding and resources to support the transition process.

A smooth and efficient transition is foundational to American democracy. With the exception of the presidential election in 2000 and the resulting recount, ascertainment by GSA normally happens within a day after a winner is declared.

Organized by Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Ranking Member Senator Gary Peters (D-Mich), other senators joining Udall and Heinrich were: U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.).

The full text of the senators’ letter can be found below and here. 

Dear Administrator Murphy,

We are writing to express deep concern regarding reports that the General Services Administration (GSA) has delayed providing President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris with the resources they need to ensure a timely and efficient presidential transition. We urge you to immediately ascertain Vice President Biden as President-elect and Senator Harris as Vice President-elect and allow the transition team to receive the resources required under the law. We also request an urgent briefing on steps GSA is taking to ensure an orderly transition.

The United States is in the midst of a pandemic that has now claimed over 250,000 lives, with the number of new cases rising daily. Our country also faces a number of ongoing threats, including physical and cyber attacks from foreign actors, violence from domestic extremists, and natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes. The independent, bipartisan 9/11 Commission cited the shortened transition timeline for then President-elect George W. Bush as a factor in delaying key national security personnel appointments, potentially hampering the new Administration. A timely transition is critical to ensure coordination between the current and incoming Administrations, provide the incoming Administration with the resources they need to immediately address these challenges, and safeguard the public health and our national security.

Under the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, as amended, GSA is charged with providing resources and support to the President-elect and Vice President-elect. Specifically, GSA must provide office space, communication services, funding for transition staff compensation, and other support. In response to a request from the Administration, Congress has appropriated $9.9 million to GSA for transition related activities. The GSA Administrator’s ascertainment of a President-elect is also critical for agencies’ willingness to share information with the transition team, including classified information, as well as for the expeditious processing of security clearances for candidates for high-level national security positions. Your delay in acknowledging Vice President Biden’s status as President-elect could undermine efforts by the incoming Administration to meet the needs of the American people in a time of national emergency.

This delay is also unprecedented. In both 2008 and 2016, President-elect Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump, respectively, were recognized by the GSA Administrator as President-elect within a day of the general election. In 2000, this decision was delayed due to an ongoing court case regarding less than 1,000 votes in a single state—a far closer election than this one. The results of this election are clear. Vice President Biden will be the next President of the United States, and Senator Harris will be the next Vice President. It is past time to recognize the will of the American people so that the work of government can continue. 

The orderly transition of power from one President to another is a bedrock principle of our democracy and one of GSA’s most important duties. We urge you to fulfill your responsibilities, ascertain Vice President Biden as President-elect and Senator Harris as Vice President-elect, and provide their transition team with the resources the law requires. We also request that, no later than November 23, 2020, GSA provide a briefing to staff of the Committees on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Appropriations, and Environment and Public Works regarding the presidential transition process and the support that GSA has provided to date.

Thank you for your attention to this critical matter.