Elaine Chao Named Next Secretary of Transportation

November 29, 2016 (Revised December 2, 2016)

President-Elect Donald Trump announced on November 29 that he will nominate Elaine Chao to be the next United States Secretary of Transportation.

“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,” said Trump. “She has an amazing life story and has helped countless Americans in her public service career. I am pleased to nominate Elaine as Secretary of the Department of Transportation.”

“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,” said Chao. “I am honored to be nominated by the President-elect to serve my beloved country as Transportation Secretary.”

Unlike several other Trump Cabinet announcements, Chao is a known quantity both at the Department and in Washington at large, being a former Deputy Secretary of Transportation from 1989-1991 and being the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) since 1993.

The highlights of her government service biography include:

  • Appointed Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration by Secretary Elizabeth Dole in 1986.
  • Nominated by President Reagan to serve on the Federal Maritime Commission 3/29/88, confirmed by the Senate by unanimous consent on 4/29/1988.
  • Nominated by President George H.W. Bush to be Deputy Secretary of Transportation (under Sec. Sam Skinner) 4/4/1989, confirmed by the Senate by unanimous consent 4/19/1989.
  • Nominated by President George H.W. Bush to be Director of the Peace Corps 9/17/1991, confirmed by the Senate by unanimous consent 10/8/1991.
  • Nominated by President George W. Bush to be Secretary of Labor 1/29/2001, confirmed by the Senate by unanimous consent 1/29/2001. Served the entire eight years of the Bush Administration.

Chao is the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants and her father founded a shipping company, which explains her original interest in maritime issues. Her entire tenure as Deputy Secretary of Transportation was under Secretary Sam Skinner.  ETW reached out to Skinner for comment, and he replied: “Elaine is an excellent choice to be Secretary of Transportation. She was very involved  in the development of the National Transportation Policy as well as the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990 and ISTEA. President Elect Trump has chosen a true professional for DOT.”

Former Transportation Secretary James Burnley, chairman of the Eno Center’s Board of Directors, also weighed in on Chao’s selection: “There is no one in America better qualified to serve as the next Secretary of Transportation than Elaine Chao.  We at Eno look forward to working with her during this dynamic period in transportation.”

The current Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, said “Elaine Chao knows the Department of Transportation well, having previously served as its Deputy Secretary. She’s also one of the nicest people I’ve met in Washington. I wish her luck in the confirmation process, and in the meantime, we will be working hard to ensure a smooth transition.”

The selection of a Secretary-Designate is key to filling the rest of the senior jobs at DOT, since the Secretary-designate is usually allowed some kind of say (if not full veto power) over major appointees in their Department.

In one of those oddities of history, this will be the second time that the spouse of the Senate Republican Leader will be the Secretary of Transportation (Elizabeth Dole, wife of Bob, was SecDOT from 1983 to 1987, although Dole did not become Leader until Howard Baker’s retirement in January 1985). Sec. Dole also went on to become Secretary of Labor.

Senate confirmation for Chao is seen as a sure thing, but not just because she is the Leaders’ spouse (and not just because she has already been confirmed four times by the Senate by unanimous consent for other jobs). It is also because the Senate is made up of human beings, and human beings just don’t have the energy to make every issue a knock-down, drag-out fight. So even if Senators find substantive reasons to question her nomination (her time at Labor had some partisan strife, but that is the nature of the job), Democrats probably will be so busy spending their energy fighting the more inflammatory Trump nominees that they won’t waste time fighting the rest.

(Ed. Note: Some of the news coverage of Chao’s nomination raises the question of nepotism, since she is married to McConnell. This seems off base. No matter the President or the party, a person who has previously served as Deputy Secretary of a department is automatically eligible for the short list for the Secretary job under a subsequent President of the same party. And Chao served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation before she ever met McConnell. So nepotism can be discounted as a reason for her inclusion on the SecDOT short list. As to why a President chooses one person over another from that short list – who knows?)

As an aside, although much has been made in the news of the unusual and, to the outside eye, dysfunctional Trump transition, this is the earliest that a President-Elect has named a SecDOT-designate in at least the 40 years that the Senate Historian has been tracking such things:

  • President-Elect Carter announced Secretary-Designate Brock Adams on December 14, 1976.
  • President-Elect Reagan announced Secretary-Designate Drew Lewis on December 11, 1980.
  • President-Elect George H.W. Bush announced Secretary-Designate Sam Skinner on December 22, 1988.
  • President-Elect Clinton announced Secretary-Designate Federico Pena on December 24, 1992.
  • President-Elect George W. Bush announced Secretary-Designate Norman Mineta on January 2, 2001 (but he is graded on a curve because the Florida recount delayed all his announcements).
  • President-Elect Barack Obama announced Secretary-Designate Ray LaHood on December 19, 2008.

Reaction from the transportation stakeholder community was uniformly supportive:

“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. We look forward to working closely with the U.S. DOT to improve safety and mobility of the American people.” – Bud Wright, Executive Director, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials

“President-elect Trump has made a very good choice in selecting an experienced and proven leader to serve in this key cabinet post. She is already well-versed on federal transportation policy, regulatory and safety matters.” – Pete Ruane, President, American Road and Transportation Builders Association

“Secretary-designate Chao’s many years of public service will serve her well in carrying out the difficult task — as the President-elect has promised — of rebuilding our badly aging transportation system and infrastructure. Secretary-designate Chao has an opportunity to play a large role in living up to the commitments made by President-elect Trump that he would rebuild the middle class through job-creation policies. Advancing massive federal investment in new transportation projects is one of the best policy strategies for improving our economy, boosting American competitiveness and putting millions to work…I look forward to meeting with Secretary-designate Chao to discuss transportation labor’s priorities.” – Ed Wytkind, President, Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO

“Elaine Chao is an outstanding pick to be the next Secretary of Transportation. She is a distinguished public servant and leader whose experience in transportation and labor issues, among others, as well as her political skills and the known ability to manage a large organization, will serve the Trump Administration well. Having served alongside Elaine in two previous administrations, I believe her wealth of experience will benefit the millions of Americans who depend on safe, affordable and abundant air travel options every day. We look forward to working with her, and the DOT under her leadership, to usher in a new era of innovation, smarter regulation, and transformational reforms to modernize our nation’s antiquated ATC system that will ensure our infrastructure in the sky is ready to meet the demand on the ground.” – Nick Calio, President and CEO, Airlines for America

“As the world’s largest non-governmental aviation safety organization, ALPA congratulates Elaine Chao on her recent nomination to lead the U.S. Department of Transportation. Ms. Chao’s extensive transportation experience gives her a unique ability to oversee the largest and most complex aviation system in the world, as well as the insight to tackle the challenging problems facing the industry.” – Air Line Pilots Association, International

“The nation’s rail industry welcomes the President-elect’s selection and looks forward to working with Ms. Chao on the many critical surface transportation issues key to U.S. economic growth and prosperity.  We know based on her prior tenure at the Department of Transportation that she has a full appreciation of the vital role freight and passenger rail play in America. On behalf of the AAR and member railroads, we congratulate Ms. Chao.” – Ed Hamberger, President and CEO, Association of American Railroads

“On behalf of the more than 1,500 members of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), we congratulate Elaine Chao, an individual with extensive federal government experience, on her nomination by President-Elect Donald Trump for the Cabinet position of U.S. Secretary of Transportation.  We are grateful to have an experienced leader in this position who has previously served at the highest levels at the Department of Labor and the Department of Transportation.” – Doran Barnes (Chairman) and Richard White (Acting President and CEO), APTA


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