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Trump Picks Elaine Chao for DOT Secretary

Friday, December 2, 2016

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President-elect Donald Trump has named former labor secretary Elaine Chao as his choice to head the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The transportation secretary will likely be a key role in Trump’s cabinet if he follows through on his $1 trillion road, bridge and transit restoration plan, multiple sources reported.

“Secretary Chao’s extensive record of strong leadership and her expertise are invaluable assets in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner,” Trump said in a statement cited by the Washington Post.

Elaine Chao, DOL
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

President-elect Donald Trump has named former labor secretary Elaine Chao, who has past experience as deputy transportation secretary, as his choice to head the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Chao and Trump met last week to discuss labor and transportation policy, Trump’s transition team told political news site Politico.

“The President-elect has outlined a clear vision to transform our country’s infrastructure, accelerate economic growth and productivity, and create good paying jobs across the country,” Chao said in a statement released with Trump’s announcement.

Other candidates under consideration for the cabinet position included Pennsylvania Rep. Lou Barletta, said to be one of the few of congressmen to “enthusiastically endorse” the Trump campaign in the early days, NPR reported.

DOT, Maritime Experience

If confirmed, this would be Chao’s second time serving in a White House cabinet, having served as head of the Labor Department under President George W. Bush, The New York Times reported. It would also be her second time with the DOT, as she was deputy transportation secretary during the President George H.W. Bush administration.

Prior to that, Chao served in various other departments in the federal government, including time as a White House fellow under President Ronald Reagan.

Chao’s transportation and management views were also influenced by her experience in corporate boardrooms, according to the Post, as she has served as a director at Northwest Airlines, as well as a former director at international construction company Parsons.

Moreover, she served as chair of the Federal Maritime Commission from 1988 to 1989, and as deputy administrator at the U.S. DOT’s Maritime Administration during the Reagan administration, commercial marine news site WorkBoat noted.

“That [experience] says something,” Richard F. Hohlt, a veteran Republican consultant and friend of Chao’s, told the Times. “She knows how to work a bureaucracy, and she knows how to last.”

Elaine Chao
By US Department of Labor / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Chao's past experience also includes an eight-year tenure as secretary of labor under the Bush administration, as well as deputy administrator at the U.S. DOT’s Maritime Administration during the Reagan administration.

“Her relationships in Washington are really deep and very well-respected, and that helps a lot,” said Samuel K. Skinner, who was Bush’s Secretary of Transportation.

However, Politico noted that, during her eight-year tenure in the labor department, labor unions and liberals were not among her fans, claiming she did not do enough to enforce the existing laws on overtime, wages and workforce safety—concerns Chao reportedly passed off as partisan politics.

"She was a terrible Labor Secretary," said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. "She cut the enforcement budgets and ... OSHA protections, thereby leaving workers less safe and more likely to be cheated on their wages."

Still, an unnamed senior transition official told the Times that Trump was “impressed” by Chao’s energy and drive, as well as her no-nonsense attitude.

Infrastructure Support, Complications

Politico suggested that Chao’s confirmation might not meet much resistance from Democrats. For instance, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) applauded her government service, in a statement to the Times, noting that he hoped to work collaboratively with Chao and Trump on an infrastructure plan.

“I hope Secretary Chao shares that ambitious goal and is willing to work with Democrats,” Schumer said.

“Senate Democrats have said that if President-elect Trump is serious about a major infrastructure bill, backed by real dollars and not just tax credits and without cutting other programs like health care and education, that we are ready to work with his administration,” Schumer explained.

However, funding the work remains an issue, as historically, Congress and the White House have been unable to agree on terms.

“That’s where the creative thinking takes place,” said Ray LaHood, President Obama’s former transportation secretary. LaHood said he sees Chao as a “strong candidate” because of her “understanding of the complexities of the private sector and the dysfunction of Washington,” the Times reported.

“I’m as optimistic as I’ve been in a long time about the potential she brings to finally get something done on infrastructure,” he said.

Elaine Chao with Hamid Karzai
By USAID / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Her relationships in Washington are really deep and very well-respected, and that helps a lot,” Samuel K. Skinner, who served as secretary of transportation under Bush, said of Chao, shown here with Afghan Interim Chairman Hamid Karzai in 2002.

Another interesting aspect of Chao’s nomination is that a final infrastructure plan would need to make it through the Senate, of which her husband, Mitch McConnell, is Senate Majority Leader.

This means that she would actively be acting as a point person for negotiating Trump’s legislative agenda with congressional leaders, which could include her husband, who, along with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-WI), is considered a key player when it comes to “negotiating with the administration and quieting fractious members,” the Post explained.

Although it is not yet clear whether Chao would negotiate directly with her husband, McConnell was reported as saying: “Let me be quite clear, I will not be recusing myself. I think it was an outstanding choice.”

Industry Comments

Several associations active in the road and transportation industries issued statements of support for Chao’s nomination Wednesday.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) stated that it looks forward to working with Chao and the Trump administration to fully fund the nation's critical transportation needs and ensure a healthy and robust national transportation system.

"Former Labor Secretary Chao is a respected leader who, based on her previous service at the U.S. Department of Transportation and in other roles, has a strong understanding of the transportation challenges facing the nation," said AASHTO Executive Director Bud Wright.

"We look forward to working closely with the U.S. DOT to improve safety and mobility of the American people."

Likewise, Pete Ruane, president and CEO of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), announced that the association believed President-elect Trump has made a “very good choice in selecting an experienced and proven leader to serve in this key cabinet post.” 

Ruane explained that Chao’s experience as a former deputy secretary of transportation and secretary of labor will result in a very short learning curve for Chao. 

“She is already well-versed on federal transportation policy, regulatory and safety matters,” Ruane noted.

“We look forward to Elaine playing a critical leadership role in fulfilling President-elect Trump’s campaign pledge to make major new strategic investments in America’s transportation infrastructure network,” Ruane added.

American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Chair Doran J. Barnes and APTA Acting President & CEO Richard A. White congratulated Chao on her nomination on behalf of its membership, noting that they are “grateful” to see an experienced leader who has served at the highest levels of the DOL and DOT in the position.

“As the former U.S. Secretary of Labor from 2001-2009, Chao is well aware of the concerns of working people and economic competitiveness,” Barnes and White stated.

“Public transportation offers job access for millions of American workers. Also, since transportation is the backbone of an economy, public transportation is critical to local and national economic competitiveness,” they added.

“The public transportation industry is ready to work with Chao on President-Elect Trump’s infrastructure initiative and advance public transportation nationwide.”


Tagged categories: AASHTO; American Public Transportation Association (APTA); American Road & Trans Builders Assn (ARTBA); Department of Labor; Department of Transportation (DOT); Government; Infrastructure; Mass transit; North America; Program/Project Management; Transportation

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