Senate Dems Urge GSA To Release Gov't Resources To Biden

By Christopher Cole
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Law360 (November 20, 2020, 9:43 PM EST) -- A group of 41 Senate Democrats has urged the General Services Administration chief to formally recognize Joe Biden as president-elect so his transition team can gain access to financial and property resources to begin taking control of the executive branch.

A Nov. 19 letter to Emily W. Murphy, the GSA administrator and a Trump political appointee, signed by nearly all of the upper chamber's Democratic caucus and led by its ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee criticized her refusal since the election was called for Biden to make his win official.

Known as "ascertainment," the GSA step is typically an uncontentious formality in a White House transition, with the government's landlord signing off on the transfer of buildings, offices and purse strings, usually within days of the election. An exception was 2000, when President Bill Clinton's GSA held off ascertaining a winner during the Florida recount that was eventually resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore .

In this situation, the Democrats said there was no comparison to that razor-thin election and that the clear victors, Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., were being deprived of facilities their team needs during an especially dangerous time as COVID-19 soars in many states.

"We urge you to immediately ascertain Vice President Biden as president-elect and Sen. Harris as vice president-elect and allow the transition team to receive the resources required under the law," they wrote. "We also request an urgent briefing on steps GSA is taking to ensure an orderly transition."

Murphy's office has had little to say publicly about her declining do far to sign the papers. Trump supporters have said she is only doing her part as a Republic appointee.

A GSA spokesperson told Law360 in an email that its deputy administrator will host a briefing on Nov. 30 with four requesting House committee chairs and their ranking members and the same day, an in-person-only briefing for Senate Appropriations, Homeland Security, Governmental Affairs and Environment and Public Works Committee staff.

"Staff for the House Appropriations and Oversight committees are invited to attend this in-person briefing as well," according to the email.

The letter of ascertainment was designed not to certify the election results but to allow a new president-elect to begin taking power with the use of government resources. Without it, Trump administration officials have cited the lack of a GSA sign-off to refuse to cooperate with Biden's transition efforts, including on national security.

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, wrote to Murphy with 40 other party members to contend that with every hour that ticked by without ascertaining Biden, the GSA was adding to a stew of risks for the country.

Under the Presidential Transition Act, "GSA must provide office space, communication services, funding for transition staff compensation, and other support," they said, noting that Congress has appropriated $9.9 million to GSA for transition-related activities.

"The GSA administrator's ascertainment of a president-elect is also critical for agencies' willingness to share information with the transition team, including classified information, as well as for the expeditious processing of security clearances for candidates for high-level national security positions," the senators wrote. "Your delay in acknowledging Vice President Biden's status as president-elect could undermine efforts by the incoming administration to meet the needs of the American people in a time of national emergency."

They called the delay "unprecedented" and maintained that in both 2008 and 2016, President-elect Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump, respectively, were recognized by the GSA chief within a day of the general election.

"It is past time to recognize the will of the American people so that the work of government can continue," the senators said.

The letter further requests a briefing from GSA to three Senate committees on the transition by Monday.

--Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

Update: This story has been updated with information from a GSA spokesperson.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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