What's ascertainment? The green light to launch transition

The course of President-elect Joe Biden's transition to power is dependent in part on an obscure declaration called “ascertainment.”


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

Here are 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?

Spokesperson Pamela Pennington said in a statement that “GSA and its Administrator will continue to abide by, and fulfill, all requirements under the law,” but the agency has not said why the decision to recognize Joe Biden as the president-elect has not been made. 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. The abbreviated transition process was identified by the 9/11 Commission Report as contributing to the nation’s unpreparedness for the crisis.