White House Nominates Szabat for DOT Aviation and International Affairs Post

August 2, 2018

On July 31, President Trump announced his intention to nominate longtime USDOT senior staffer Joel Szabat as Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Aviation and International Affairs (ASAI/A). The nomination was formally transmitted to the Senate on August 1 and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

After working as a private sector management consultant, a transportation staffer in the California state Assembly, and as a management and budget aide to the EPA Administrator, Szabat started at USDOT in 2002 as a political appointee, as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy under Assistant Secretary Emil Frankel, who is now a Senior Fellow at the Eno Center (and who points out that Szabat is an avid Red Sox and Patriots fan). By the end of 2004, Szabat lateraled over to become Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Management and Budget, under the Assistant Secretary for Budget and Programs.

Along with many other Bush Administration mid-level appointees, he then took a tour of duty on Iraq reconstruction in 2005, to run the U.S. government’s transportation reconstruction program,and served as the Transportation Counselor to the American Ambassador in Baghdad. He returned to the U.S. to be Chief of Staff for the Small Business Administration from 2006-2008. As the Bush Administration was winding down, Szabat went into the career Senior Executive Service and came back to DOT as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy just in time for the beginning of the Obama Administration (not quite the same job as he’d had before – most of these Assistant Secretary posts have at one career incumbent deputy and then one or two politically appointed deputies – in his first tenure at DOT, Szabat was a political deputy, then in his second tenure he was a career deputy).

In that capacity, he was the policy office’s point man for oversight of the $48 billion in ARRA stimulus money received by DOT in 2009, which included the first round of TIGER grants. He then moved to become the Executive Director of the Maritime Administration from 2012-2018.

At the beginning of this year, Susan McDermott, who had been the career DAS for Aviation and International Affairs since 2000 and who had worked in the office for 17 years before that, retired and Szabat was tapped to take her place.

Szabat received his B.A. in economics and government from Georgetown University, and his MBA from Harvard Business School.

This Assistant Secretary post is one of the more unusual ones. From the day USDOT was established in 1967, the Secretary has always had responsibility for international transportation agreements generally, and those were delegated to one of the Assistant Secretaries that had the international affairs portfolio. (Until recently, each Secretary had the authority to change the job descriptions of the Assistant Secretaries, but they are now set in law.) When Congress deregulated the airline industry in 1978, what remained of the Civil Aeronautics Board’s regulatory and economic functions were not transferred to the Federal Aviation Administration but were instead given directly to the Secretary of Transportation and are now vested in the Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs as well, including airline customer service oversight and the Essential Air Service subsidy program.

The Code of Federal Regulations (49 CFR §1.32) defines the job as being “responsible for policy development, coordination, and evaluation of issues involving aviation, as well as international issues involving all areas of transportation; private sector evaluation; international transportation and transport-related trade policy and issues; regulatory and legislative initiatives and review of maritime/shipbuilding policies and programs; transport-related trade promotion; coordination of land transport relations with Canada and Mexico; economic regulation of the airline industry while placing maximum reliance on market forces and on actual and potential competition; the essential air service program and other rural air service programs; and, in coordination with the FAA, promotion of the aerospace industry.” For a full list of federal laws delegated to the ASAI/A, see here.

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