Clarifying role of the GSA administrator among less-discussed omnibus provisions
The landmark overhaul of the Electoral Count Act isn’t the only way the omnibus spending bill that’s heading to President Joe Biden’s desk seeks to avoid a repeat of 2020’s post-election chaos.
Also among the provisions in the catchall bill is a bipartisan effort to avoid a repeat of another controversy driven by an appointee of former President Donald Trump that was eventually overshadowed by the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. The House cleared the omnibus measure on Friday afternoon, sending it on to the president.
The General Services Administration, run at the time by Administrator Emily Murphy, delayed making an “ascertainment” that Joe Biden had in fact prevailed in the election, a move that hampered the transition by keeping the incoming Biden team from getting customary access to transition resources, national intelligence briefings and other important information, including about the COVID-19 pandemic.
The legislation would prevent the GSA administrator from playing such an outsize role in the future.
“In addition to necessary fixes to the Electoral Count Act, updates to the Presidential Transition Act are important to our national security and the health of our democracy,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said in a statement. “The transition between presidential administrations is a critical process and we need to protect it from becoming another political battleground. I’m glad to see our bill included in the Omnibus and move closer to the president’s desk for signature.”
The bill clarifies the role of the GSA administrator and allows for transition resources to be offered to both major-party candidates within five days of the election if there are legitimate grounds for a contest, or if the outcome actually is unknown and no candidate has conceded.
Once the outcome of the election is known, however, the winning presidential candidate is the only one to continue to receive resources, whether that’s after legal challenges are exhausted and the electors convene or as late as the joint session of Congress for counting the ballots in January.
The delayed ascertainment of Biden’s victory was the first recent case, with the exception of the 2000 election, when the outcome was actually in doubt because of the Florida recount and the eventual Supreme Court decision that led to the certification of George W. Bush as the winner. The joint session of Congress certifying that electoral count was presided over by the candidate Bush beat, Vice President Al Gore.
Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., a Democrat from Northern Virginia, was among the members expressing concern about GSA’s handling of the ascertainment at the time.
“I’m glad to see the Presidential Transition Improvement Act, an important safeguard for our elections and democracy, included as part of this year’s omnibus funding bill,” Beyer said in a statement. “As a response to the late-2020 refusal by Trump’s GSA Administrator Emily Murphy to certify a presidential transition for weeks, the bill specifies when qualified presidential and vice presidential candidates are entitled to receive federal assistance during the transition into office — an essential reform to avert any threats that attempt to undermine our democratic processes or institutions.”
More of the focus on the section of the omnibus responding to the 2020 election has related to the effort to prevent a repeat of the attempt by Trump and his supporters to overturn the results of the election on Jan. 6, with the Electoral Count Act reaffirming that the vice president’s role in counting of the Electoral College ballots is in fact ceremonial.
Among other provisions, that measure also increases the threshold of the number of lawmakers required to force debates on the validity of the electoral ballots, requiring one-fifth of the House and the Senate in a bid to avoid a repeat of the kind of ill-fated and ill-conceived challenges of Jan. 6, 2021.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., were leaders of a bipartisan group that crafted the Senate version of the electoral process update package that was ultimately supported by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
“Our bipartisan group worked tirelessly to draft this legislation that fixes the flaws of the archaic and ambiguous Electoral Count Act of 1887 and establishes clear guidelines for our system of certifying and counting electoral votes for President and Vice President,” Collins and Manchin said in a statement after Senate passage. “We are pleased that our legislation has passed the Senate and are grateful to have the support of so many of our colleagues. We look forward to seeing this bill signed into law.”