Transition to power set in train, despite controversy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2000, 12:00am

In a night heavy with political theatre, George W. Bush's demand that the transition begin was the one tangible claim that needs watching in the heat of the coming days.

As he sought to make the most of a narrow, still-disputed lead, the Republican issued a full declaration of victory, formally authorising his running mate - and potential vice-president - Dick Cheney to start work on the heavy bureaucratic task of taking power.

Normally this is a smooth, if complex, back-room affair conducted with a warm air of bipartisanship.

There is 90,000 square feet of office space waiting in a downtown Washington building to handle the mass of paperwork and computer data related to the transfer of power to a new administration.

If Mr Bush is as serious as he sounds, he can be expected to dispatch Mr Cheney to Washington to ask for the keys. Mr Cheney, in an unprecedented act, may well be rebuffed as Democrat Al Gore refuses to concede defeat. Depending on the ebb and flow of the publicity battle, this could further pressure Mr Gore to cave in.

While Mr Bush may have plotted the move to score a symbolic victory, the transition is nonetheless an important task if the new president is to smoothly settle in. The process has already fallen behind and some Washington insiders fear it may hamper the new president for months.

America boasts the world's largest bureaucracy. Not only is there the raft of budgetary and legislative information to be considered, but the operation of its most sensitive branches - the massive Department of Defence at the Pentagon, the intelligence services, including the CIA and the FBI, as well as the Department of Energy, responsible for America's nuclear research.

In other countries, transition is relatively simple. In British-style Westminster democracies, for example, a new prime minister names ministers to his cabinet to monitor a civil service that remains largely unchanged. In the US, however, political appointees play roles right through the bureaucracy. A new president can be expected to make upwards of 6,000 new appointments.

Mr Bush named former Republican transportation secretary Andrew Card as his White House Chief of Staff - a position with considerable political and organisational influence. Bush advisers say they are determined to push ahead as soon as possible with the transition, and other key appointments could be announced shortly.

But by last night, there were already signs that Mr Bush may not get his way - at least not yet.