What’s ascertainment? The green light to launch a presidential transition

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President-elect Joe Biden speaks Monday at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The course of President-elect Joe Biden’s transition to power is dependent in part on an obscure declaration called “ascertainment.”

Some details on that process:

WHAT IS ASCERTAINMENT?

The formal presidential transition doesn’t begin until the administrator of the federal General Services Administration ascertains the “apparent successful candidate” in the general election. Neither the Presidential Transition Act nor federal regulations specify how that determination should be made. That decision green lights the entire federal government’s moves toward preparing for a handover of power.

WHY HASN’T IT HAPPENED YET?

The agency has not said why the decision to recognize Joe Biden as the president-elect has not been made. A GSA spokesperson said in a statement Monday: “An ascertainment has not yet been made. GSA and its Administrator will continue to abide by, and fulfill, all requirements under the law and adhere to prior precedent established by the Clinton Administration in 2000.”

GSA is an executive branch agency. Its administrator, Emily Murphy, is a Trump appointee, but the ascertainment decision is supposed to be apolitical. The White House did not say whether there have been conversations on the matter between officials there and at GSA.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

The determination clears the way for millions of federal dollars to flow to Biden’s transition team and opens the doors of the federal government to hundreds of Biden staffers, so they can begin assessing agency operations ahead of Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. A delay in recognizing Biden as the next president could slow federal resources to assist the Biden-Harris team in filling about 4,000 political appointments across the government — including critical national security and health postings.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

Slowing the pace of the transition could hamstring a new administration right out of the gate. The Trump administration, experts say, never fully recovered from the slow pace of hiring from its mismanaged 2016 transition after Trump tossed aside carefully prepared plans the day after his victory.

HAS THIS DELAY EVER HAPPENED BEFORE?

In 2000, the GSA determination was delayed until after the Florida recount fight was settled on Dec. 13. At the time, the administrator relied on an assessment from one of the drafters of the 1963 Presidential Transition Act that “in a close contest, the Administrator simply would not make the decision.”

That 2000 recount involved just a few hundred votes in one state that would have determined which candidate reached 270 electoral votes. Biden’s leads across Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, which pushed him over the threshold to win the White House, are far more substantial — and greater than Trump’s leads in the same states in 2016.

The abbreviated transition process was identified by the 9/11 Commission Report as contributing to the nation’s unpreparedness for the crisis.

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