Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Wednesday that despite all their public criticism, Republican lawmakers tell him in private that they think the administration's stimulus package has been a success.
"I believe the economic recovery plan has worked," LaHood said, in an interview with the Huffington Post, "and I've had Republican members tell me that when I've gone in and done projects or been with them or visited them in their offices... They know that we have dollars that have put people to work."
Speaking days before he was set to address a conference of progressive activists, LaHood's remarks were offered as part of a broader defense of the president's economic recovery agenda. The Transportation Secretary has been one of the administration's main pitchmen and administrators for the stimulus package, overseeing the roughly $50 billion that has been set aside for infrastructure projects. But his unique expertise comes from having served -- prior to his current post -- as a Republican member of the House of Representatives.
LaHood was largely diplomatic when asked to reflect on his former colleagues' criticism. But in saying that Republicans have privately told him that the stimulus is working, he added fuel to the debate over whether the GOP has been duplicitous or unfair in their critiques. Already, there have been numerous press reports of lawmakers attending stimulus-related ribbon cutting ceremonies in their districts as well as lobbying different government agencies for stimulus funds.
"There would be thousands of people out of work if it weren't for the economic recovery program. Thousands of people," LaHood said of the Recovery Act. "We know that thousands of jobs have been created. We know that thousands of projects are underway. All you have to do is travel around American, see the orange cones, and see the men and women working on infrastructure, working on projects, resurfacing roads... there is a lot of activity in America and a lot of people working. This would not have happened if not for the economic recovery."
"So what I say to people is, 'Take a few steps in my footsteps.'" He added, "Travel the country like I have for the last 18 months and you will know that America is working and wouldn't be working if it hadn't been for this plan."
One of the more frank and affable members of the White House, LaHood's Republican roots provide him with a certain credibility in the stimulus debate. To this point, however, he's done much of his work out of the public spotlight, spending his time instead traveling to more than 80 cities and 30 states to launch and oversee various projects. His bullishness with respect to the stimulus is not shared by the public, which is largely skeptical about its reach. To which LaHood blames both the media and the country's prevailing unemployment problem.
"People don't travel around the country. They get their information from newspaper and blogs or watching television," he said. "The other thing is we have unemployment hovering way up there. It is not at ten percent but it is below ten percent and there are a lot of people looking for work. But if you look at the construction trades and you look at people who build roads, build bridges, resurface, repave, a lot of those people are working today because of the economic recovery."
Getting people back to work is, of course, the predominant goal for both him and the administration. But LaHood's job also includes overseeing a broad transformation of the country's infrastructure -- a goal that could suffer from congressional penny-pinching. The Transportation Secretary, for instance, has been committed to the construction of a high-speed rail system that would put the country on par with other developed nations. But the price tag for the project is steep ($500 billion) and the investment made by the Recovery Act ($8 billion), while historic, can only go so far.
"It will take a couple decades but we are going to get there because Americans want to get there, they want passenger rail we have a very strong high-speed inner city rail, a nationwide plan that we believe can be implemented in a little more than two decades and will connect 80 percent of America," he said.
Then there is the matter of continuing the infrastructure projects already underway. At some point the stimulus funds will run out. After which, LaHood will need another source of revenue. Transportation bills are traditionally the most non-controversial pieces of legislation that Congress considers (mainly because each member wants money for projects in his or her district). But this is a different Congress. And even LaHood hinted that securing a big check for transportation projects could be a tough task.
"On the infrastructure side of things, certainly a transportation bill will be very helpful and we hope that that can happen as these funds are phased out," he said before adding: "As soon as we can find $500 billion, we will have a transportation bill."