Thursday, December 11, 2008

Are we there yet?

Every once in a while at this point in the political cycle, someone will write an op-ed piece questioning why the presidential transition process takes quite as long as it does. When the British hold a general election and toss one party out, the leader of the other party becomes prime minister the next day. Why can't we do that in the U.S.?

Professor John Milton Cooper, Jr., of the University of Wisconsin has written such an article in today's New York Times.

I wrote here about one relevant difference between the American and British systems. The British have an institution known as the "shadow cabinet".

During much of the transition period of about 2 1/2 months between election and inauguration, an American president-elect is engaged in choosing Cabinet members. His British counterpart doesn't need to do that, because his or her team is already pretty well in place.

That raises two questions:

First, could the U.S. Cabinet selection process be done more quickly? Barack Obama has moved more quickly than some predecessors (George W. Bush got a late start, due to the Florida recount), but could it be completed in, say, one month, if the president-elect faced a hard deadline? In other words, does Parkinson's Law apply?

Second, could the U.S. adopt a shadow cabinet system? Two additional Anglo-American differences would affect that. One is that U.S. parties choose a presidential candidate (more or less equivalent to a British party leader) shortly before each general election. By contrast, U.K. parties have a leader in place at all times.

Another difference is that the British have no procedure that is equivalent to our Senate confirmation process.

In light of all that, what process could American presidential nominees use?

Usually there is a period of time between the party conventions and Labor Day, which is traditionally considered the start of the fall election campaign. This year, both parties' conventions were unusually late, with the Republican convention extending beyond Labor Day. But if they were both held in July, that would give a nominee at least a month during which to choose a shadow cabinet.

Would the Senate get involved? A shadow secretary's status would be nebulous, if it were unclear whether he or she would eventually be confirmed by the Senate. But being called on to vet both a Democratic set of nominees and a Republican set of nominees would add to the Senate's workload. And the membership of the Senate in August of the election year would be different than in the following January, when Cabinet nominees are voted on, under the current system.

I don't recall having heard of the Wilson story that Cooper mentions. Such a succession plan could not happen in the same way now, because Congress has changed the presidential succession law, putting congressional leaders ahead of Cabinet members in the line of succession.

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