Tevi Troy writes for the Observer about a recent federal law that guarantees at least some money will be wasted this year.

In 2010, Congress passed a law to provide “transition funding” to presidential nominees—creating government-sponsored transition offices before the election even tells us who the next president will be. Mitt Romney was the first candidate to receive this type of aid after he secured the GOP nomination in 2012. (That transition shuttered its doors after Romney lost the November election.) But this year there is no incumbent, so for the first time in U.S. history, the federal government will pay for two transitions, one of which is guaranteed to come to naught, and one which will develop into a new administration.

This new approach to transitions is part of a third phase in the history of American presidential transitions. The first phase, which was in effect for most of our history, was one in which transitions, to the extent they existed, were haphazard, and not funded or facilitated by the federal government. This first phase dates back to an era of smaller, less complex government, but also one in which there was a five month period—from Election Day in November to a March inauguration—in which outgoing presidents departed and the incoming president came to town.

The second phase of transitions began in 1952, following the election of Dwight Eisenhower. Not only was the presidential inauguration now taking place in January, but the post-Depression, post-New Deal, and post-World War II, government was much larger, more expensive, and more complex. Eisenhower used the transition period to select his cabinet, a budget director, and, in a new innovation, a Chief of Staff. A key step in the development of this second phase of transitions was the 1963 Presidential Transition Act (PTA).

In John F. Kennedy’s well-regarded presidential transition, he spent approximately $300,000 of his own funds on the effort. Going forward, though, Kennedy recognized the need for transition resources, as well as the fact that other presidents-elect would not be as wealthy as he was. Accordingly, he set up a commission to make recommendations for future transitions, leading to the passage of the PTA, which provided for transition spending in the range of $900,000, the equivalent about $6.7 million today. …

… In this cycle, both Clinton and Trump will have government funded transitions, which does raise some concerns. Whatever happens in November, 40 percent or more of voters will be in the position of having contributed taxpayer dollars to develop policy positions that they will vote against in November. Furthermore, at least 50 percent of the overall spending will be wasted, as one of the transitions’ efforts will be designated for trash bins rather than presidential archives.

In 2012, the cost of the Romney transition was $8.9 million. This year, with funding going to both the Clinton and Trump efforts, the overall cost will be higher. Along with the costs, though, there is one major benefit to the new approach: the development of the pre-convention transition means that there will never again be a truncated transition such as the one that took place after the muddled election of 2000. Regardless of the outcome, both teams will continue their preparations, and either team will be ready to take over whenever the clouds of uncertainty disappear.