Commentary

Move On! The Benefits of Instant Transition

By Patrick Basham
October 23, 2003

Possibly the only thing more difficult than governing California is arranging the transition from one governor to the next. The pace of the post-recall transition is firmly set by law, so, we are told, that it will be late November before Arnold Schwarzenegger takes the oath.

Those inflexible laws state that the counties have until Nov. 5 to officially count the recall ballots, and then the secretary of state has until Nov. 15 to certify the election results. Governor-elect Schwarzenegger must be inaugurated within 10 days of certification.

Although the state’s problems are so serious that the voters fired a sitting governor, we are told that the incoming governor needs time to hire a 200-person staff. We are also told that Davis, his comparably outsized staff, his cabinet members and their respective staffs need time to pack up their rolodexes and dust off their resumes before returning to the real world. In truth, this dragged-out process is both unnecessary and undesirable.

A parliamentary system can teach us something about efficient, and fast, turnovers. British transitions of power, for example, are very short. British elections always take place on a Thursday and, if the Prime Minister’s party is thrown out of office, the new PM is ensconced in No. 10 Downing Street by Friday afternoon.

How is this possible? Election results, counted centrally and by hand within each district, are reported two to six hours after the polls close. By lunchtime on Friday, the national results are official.

Margaret Thatcher learned that her Conservative Party would form a majority government during the early afternoon of Friday, May 4, 1979. By 2.45 pm, Buckingham Palace was on the phone officially inviting Thatcher to receive the Queen’s formal blessing to form a new government. An hour earlier, outgoing Prime Minister James Callaghan, leader of the Labor party, visited the Queen to promptly tender his resignation, as required by Britain’s unwritten constitutional tradition.

Thatcher then drove straight to Downing Street. Callaghan’s family and staff courteously packed their bags well in advance of their possible departure. In the British tradition, it is considered proper for the former prime ministerial tenant to quickly make way for his successor.

Once in power, Thatcher set about reorganizing the 80 mostly political appointees who staffed her office. Following the Labour party’s May 1, 1997, victory, Labor leader Tony Blair sought a much larger staff than his Conservative predecessors — Blair packed 145 aides into No. 10. Even so large a staffing challenge did not slow the shift from 18 years of Conservative administration to New Labor.

After Blair accepted his supporters’ plaudits in his northern English district in the small hours of Friday, May 2, he flew south to London, where he checked in with the Queen, announced his most senior cabinet appointments, and then took a triumphant early afternoon stroll along Downing Street. As Blair crossed the threshold of No. 10, Conservative leader John Major’s bags sped away in a moving van.

Back in California, although his chances of surviving the recall were predictably dismal, outgoing Gov. Davis’s bags remain unpacked. How is Davis busying himself during these difficult transition days? First, he’s planning on making over 100 new political and judicial appointments. Davis made four appointments on the morning after his defeat. Before Schwarzenegger takes office, California’s Democratic leadership also plans a special session of the state Senate to confirm dozens of Democratic appointments to state boards and commissions.

Clearly, Davis and his allies are legally entitled to remain in their offices. It is also clear that they are hard at work denigrating the spirit, if not the letter, of the law that applies to the transition of power — and the spirit of the recall, itself. One hopes that California will speed up the turnover timetable and end such partisan effrontery.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.