The Transition Begins, Poorly Lit

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The first public briefing by America’s new shadow government took place, appropriately enough, in a basement. Not just any basement, mind you, but the basement of an undistinguished rectangular building in the heart of the unremarkable office grid that is known as the nation’s capital. The lighting was dim, the walls were gray, and John Podesta, the fidgety organization man who is helping to oversee Barack Obama’s presidential transition effort, did not wear a tie.

Aesthetics didn’t matter because this was a “pen and pad” briefing, which is a term of art that harks back to the days of teletype machines and men’s hats, if not parchment and quill pens. In practice, it means that journalists are allowed to come with digital recorders, laptops and other sundry writing equipment. Cameras of the still and video variety are verboten; the only pictures permitted must be painted in words. (Seven American flags hung in the back of the room, and Podesta, a slight man who talks as if he consumes only Diet Coke, held his arms on a small podium, with microphones that broadcast his words out to journalists around the country listening in on a live conference call feed.)

As odd as the setting seemed, the process of presidential transition is even stranger. Obama, Podesta and their team must build a government in just 77 days, if you count both New Year’s and Christmas. At the first briefing about this process Tuesday, Podesta said that he expects to spend about $12 million on the effort, most of which will be paid for by private donations from individuals who are not registered lobbyists in sums of $5,000 or less. (Congress kicks in $5.2 million to the effort.) All that money will pay for about 450 staff in Chicago and D.C. offices to do reviews of the major federal agencies, create dossiers on potential appointments, and otherwise set up the personnel for the future of the U.S. government, which included in 2004, 15 secretaries, 24 deputy secretaries, more than 275 assistant secretaries and more than 2,500 additional presidential appointees not subject to Senate confirmation.

So who is going where? Podesta did not say. He did suggest that reporters could stakeout buildings in both Chicago and Washington with binoculars. “Are you telling us how to do our job?” asked one reporter in jest. “You could make it easier,” called out another. Upon hearing these remarks, Podesta offered a modest smile, though there is no documentary evidence of this smile, since cameras of all sorts were not allowed in the room.

Podesta did say the process would move fast, and that he was concerned about getting people appointed and confirmed in time to have a functioning government come February. (For example, the FCC is going to have to oversee the switch to digital television signals a few weeks after the inauguration, an event that will be made more difficult if there is no one running the agency.)

Podesta also announced a new conflict-of-interest policy for the people who will be working on the transition. The most important part is this: Lobbyists cannot work on the transition in any subject area for which they have registered to lobby in the last year, which suggests either that the Obama team plans to eschew lobbyist expertise, or hire a bunch of oil lobbyists to structure the Department of Education. Someone asked Podesta about the concern that he might be leaving those people with the most expertise about how government functions out in the cold. “So be it,” said Podesta.

Some minutes later, after he had taken his final question, Podesta attempted to quickly exit the briefing room through a back door, a deft move that would allow him to avoid further interaction with reporters, including a pesky member of the foreign press who was trying to hand him a business card. But the back door would not budge, requiring a quick change of plans. “Okay, we’re locked out,” Podesta announced. “I have to run the gauntlet here.” And so Podesta fearlessly headed straight through the crowd of more than 100 reporters, showing exactly the sort of mental and physical dexterity that will be required of him over the next 10 weeks. The only pity is that no pictures were made to commemorate the man in action.