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House panel examines GSA decision to withhold transition funds

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Members of Congress waded into the presidential election fray Monday as a House panel scrutinized the decision of the General Services Administration to withhold transition funding until the dispute over Florida's 25 electoral votes is resolved.

Signed into law nearly 40 years ago, the Presidential Transition Act directs the GSA to providing funding, assistance and office space to help incoming presidents take over the reins of government from outgoing administrations. But GSA administrator David Barram placed the current $7.1 million fund -- along with two floors of prime office space in downtown Washington -- on hold, citing his inability to determine the "apparent winner" of the November 7 presidential contest, as the 1963 law states.

"With legal action being pursued by both sides, it is not apparent to me who the winner is," said Barram. "Both candidates are honorable men and each is convinced he won this extremely close race. I intend to respect the integrity of their public statements."

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The move prompted Rep. Stephen Horn, the Republican chairman of the House subcommittee on Government Management, to send a letter to the GSA last week arguing that the transition funding should be given immediately to Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Horn argued Monday that a failure to do so could impede a smooth handover of power from the Clinton administration.

"Today, nearly four weeks after the presidential election, the administrator says he's still unable to ascertain a winner," said Horn, a California Republican. "Those charged with implementing this law must carefully consider the implications of their decisions and the precedents they establish."

Ranking Democrats on the committee said Republicans were pressuring the GSA to declare Bush the winner over Vice President Gore as part of an overall public relations strategy. The two sides are locking horns in Florida's court system and state Legislature over disputed ballots in a number of counties.

"Should the Presidential Transition Act consider the implications of having the executive branch announce a judgment regarding the election outcome while the judicial branch is still in the process of considering significant questions relating to the outcome?" asked Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California.

A panel of experts, including members of past presidential transition teams, was asked whether the whether the legislation needs to be rewritten to accommodate more than one candidate if the GSA administrator is unable to determine the apparent winner of a close election.

"I would recommend that whatever you do, you find a way to encourage the allocation of some of the existing funds, even if it has to be done initially in a somewhat divided way," said former White House chief of staff John Sununu, who led President Bush's transition efforts in 1988.

Members of the panel were mostly divided along partisan lines as to whether the delayed transition process will be a significant hindrance to the next occupant of the White House.

"The sky is not falling, and we shouldn't act as though it is," said Jack Watson, a Democrat who served as chief of staff of President Jimmy Carter's transition team in 1976

"Under the best of circumstances, it is a formidable challenge for the incoming president and vice president to do in approximately only 10 weeks all the things they need to do to assume office on January 20th with a running start," he said.

Despite the lack of government funding, both Bush and Gore have plunged ahead with planning their new presidential administrations. The Texas governor's campaign has rented office space in northern Virginia and began vetting possible Cabinet appointees.

Gore has also huddled with advisers, and is considering asking a number of Clinton administration officials to temporarily remain at their post if he is declared winner of the November 7 contest.

Meanwhile, Barram is asking Congress to extend the time that transition money can be spent to 60 days after the election from the current 30 days. He is already taking steps, such as creating e-mail accounts and passwords, to speed the turnover once the election is decided.

"We continue to work closely with both campaigns to shorten the turnover time, so that what once took a week or more can now be done within a day or hours."

Despite such efforts, Sununu argued that thousands of mid-level appointees have already been delayed by the GSA's refusal to grant funds for a new administration.

"There is no time that'll be as precious for the transition to any new administration as these days and weeks ... a one-month delay now will be reflected in a six month to one year delay in getting things really started," said Sununu, who said the Bush administration received at least 40,000 resumes two weeks after assuming power.


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Monday, December 4, 2000

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