Yes, it’s presumptuous to worry about our insane presidential transition process. But still….

I know it’s presumptuous to speak of the presidential transition. Still, does America really have to decapitate its government jat the precise moment a new president will need it most?

In seven months, we will have a new president. At the precise moment that we are likely to inaugurate a new president with an ambitious policy and legislative agenda, we will be busy in the decapitation of our own government. We will replace hundreds of officials ranging from every cabinet official to the heads of FEMA, CMS, ONDCP, and NIH to countless deputy assistant secretaries for vital matters or patronage across the government. Some of those who will leave are competent, such as Robert Gates. Others won’t be missed—take your pick here. Many of the departing folks have finally learned how to do their jobs, just in time to be replaced by a new crop of similar appointees who require the same laminated map marking locations of the working bathrooms…..

Our next president will want to hit the ground running in his first 100 days. Whatever he accomplishes will have to be done by a very talented group, but one that will be gelling as a team and doing a lot of improvising. Fortunately, a President Obama will have a Senate and House held by the same party. Even so, many people will be stuck somewhere in the confirmation process. Positions will be unfilled. As Ilan Goldenberg points out, others will be mired down in the practicalities of security clearances.

Ezra Klein and others have discussed how and whether the next president should submit a quick healthcare bill to Congress. Ezra presents good reasons for presumed President Obama not to write this bill himself, but to leave the sausage-making to Congress. One issue he does not mention: House and Senate staff would actually be in-place to write the thing.

These matters reflect are serious, systemic problems in American government. Alongside an already-self-inhibiting system of checks and balances, we have an executive branch in which short-term political appointees penetrate far deeper into the bureaucracy than in any other industrial democracy. And we cycle these appointees through with depressing frequency. This is pretty scary, when we start to think ahead to the task awaiting likely President Obama in January 2009.

I don’t have a terrific solution, but four things seem clear.

1. Our political appointee-dominated model of executive government is insane. Hugh Heclo and others note some advantages that come from it. Yet our approach shows real disdain for the expertise and experience required for effective public management. There is a craft to Medicare administration, to managing HUD grants, to running the policy shop in the Pentagon. Bush’s incompetence at–and disdain for–these tasks provides one extreme example. Leaving this aside, our nation could do much better.

2. We don’t prepare candidates and their allies for operational tasks of government. Except possibly on a few issues, no political campaign achieves the programmatic depth one needs to govern. Candidates are not tested on their policy knowledge. Many of the difficult operational issues don’t line up neatly along ideological and political lines and so remain latent. Two health examples: Low Medicaid reimbursement rates are among the most serious challenges in health policy. I can’t recall this issue being raised by a single candidate. Raise your hand if you can identify what HRSA is, and why it should matter in health policy debate. Parliamentary democracies often maintain shadow cabinets that contain informed people with the requisite skills. We have that to some extent, but in a more haphazard way.

3. Our next president will need much help with the nuts and bolts of governing. I think Obama is a pretty good manager, but if I were him I would spend as much time picking my chief of staff as I would picking my VP. Aside from the obvious political factors, I would pick both of them based on their ability to help manage the government rather than their specific issue positions. McCain’s management style seems disastrous. If I were him, I would bury the hatchet with Romney, who has a genuine track record running stuff.

4. Campaigns need some regularized mechanism to get a running start on operational concerns. This happens to some extent in national security but rarely in other areas. I assume both candidates will receive some private national security briefings as the campaign progresses. That doesn’t happen in other areas. No political appointees or (better) career civil servants at HUD or HHS are expected to brief the campaigns about their operational plans and challenges. Indeed officials would probably get fired for violating the Hatch Act if they tried. And of course it looks icky and presumptuous for any candidate–even one far ahead in the polls and almost sure to win—to focus on the presidential transition before a certain Tuesday in November. This is not a partisan issue. George W. Bush ended up with about 20 days to pick his cabinet when he took office.

If we aren’t planful, I fear that our creaky institutions will function at their worst within precisely the window of opportunity in which our next president will have the greatest mandate to leave his mark. It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.

Postscript: No doubt anticipating my posting and the specific mention, Secretary Gates has taken steps to keep key national security officials on for a few months into the next presidency. He is guarding against the possibility of a terrorist attack or foreign policy crisis occurring in early 2009. Today’s WSJ (behind a paywall) has the story

Sadly, I guess the domestic side of the government is just less important.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.