Hey, everyone! Remember Norm Mineta? Probably not, actually. But when George W. Bush needed to honor a promise to find a home in his Cabinet for a token Democrat, he tapped Mineta at Transportation and no one ever talked about it again. He served six years -- which made him the longest-serving Transportation Secretary ever -- and was succeeded in 2006 by Mary Peters, of whom you've also probably never heard.
With the press beginning to wonder how Obama will honor the same promise to place someone from the opposing party in his Cabinet (the retention of political changeling Robert Gates proving unsatisfactory, I guess), the President-elect will be using the same Department of Transportation, tapping the retiring Illinois Representative Ray LaHood as its Secretary. But will LaHood languish in obscurity, or will he play along with an administration that's promised significant things where mass-transit is concerned?
On balance, the early reviews suggest that little is known about LaHood's transportation policies, but he shows some promise. Progress Illinois writes:
So what can we glean about LaHood's record on this issue? The moderate Republican has broken with his party over Amtrak funding, voting yes last summer to expand passenger rail service. In 2005, he told the Peoria Journal-Star that "we've got a good Amtrak system in Illinois and I don't think we want to destroy it by talking about privatization." In 2006, he received a 66 percent rating from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a major transportation construction lobby. He also voted in favor of the Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act of 2008, a bill to promote increased public transportation use that garnered string bi-partisan support. Other than that, we know very little.
In principle, I think this is a great slot for a bipartisan pick. In practice, Democrats tend to be better on transportation issues than Republicans, but there isn't actually a ton of ideological linkage between these issues and the broad disagreements between the parties. You could think abortion is murder, and also that investment in high-speed rail would be a good idea. Or you could favor tax cuts and congestion pricing on roads. And of course lots of Democrats have terrible views on transportation issues.
In LaHood's favor, he adds, "he did break with the GOP to support the Passenger Rail Investment Act and the Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act so that seems promising." But the Economist's Ryan Avent, who's opinion on transportation/transit issues is one I've always found to be exceedingly sound, expresses doubts. Prior to official confirmation, Avent said of the prospective appointment:
So far, the things mentioned as being in his favor are -- friendship with the president-elect and his chief of staff, some pro-Amtrak votes, experience managing big projects as a member of the Appropriations committee (?), and his Republican-ness, for some reason.
This makes no sense at all to me. As I see it, then, there are three possibilities: 1) Obama doesn't intend the DOT secretary to do the heavy lifting on his transportation policies, 2) Obama doesn't really care about transportation, and 3) it isn't true.
Once the news became official, Avent opined: "That's...disappointing. It's possible that Obama wants him for GOP outreach, or that the bold moves will come elsewhere -- out of another department or a national infrastructure bank. And we don't yet know who'll be running the FTA, or what resources they'll have. But this does seem to be strongly at odds with the administration's language on energy, environmental, and transportation issues."