April 21, 2015

This week’s ETW Document of the Week is an insider view of the creation of the Department of Transportation – an oral history interview from the Lyndon Johnson Library with Charles J. Zwick.

In 1965 Zwick, a transportation specialist with the Rand Corporation, was brought in to interview for the vacant job of Under Secretary of Commerce for Transportation that instead went to Alan Boyd (who became the first Secretary of Transportation).  Zwick instead took a job as assistant director of the Bureau of the Budget, where he wound up being placed in charge of consolidating various federal agencies into a new Department of Transportation. Boyd, as Under Secretary for Transportation, took the role of “Mr. Outside” in justifying the proposed Department to the public, and Zwick was “Mr. Inside” who ran the working group that negotiated with agencies, wrote the bill, and cleared all testimony before Congress.

The discussion of the creation of DOT starts at the top of page 10 of the printed transcript (page 11 of the PDF file) and reveals the following:

  • The simultaneous 1966 push for highway safety legislation (prompted largely by the 1965 publication of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed) was linked to the creation of the Department by the White House aide Joseph Califano to provide a “sex appeal” issue for what was otherwise a dry bureaucratic undertaking.
  • The inland waterways industry defeated the Johnson Administration in Congress and its Congressional supporters rewrote section 7 of the DOT bill to prohibit the Secretary of Transportation for establishing cost-benefit analysis standards for waterway projects.
  • The original DOT bill reported from committee in the House included the Maritime Administration, but the maritime labor unions successfully lobbied the House Rules Committee to prevent the bill from coming to the House floor unless MARAD was left out of DOT. (Maritime interests wanted MARAD to become an independent agency, but the Administration had the votes in the Senate to defeat that, so it remained at Commerce until 1984.)
  • There was significant debate in 1965-1966 over whether or not the aviation safety regulation function of the Civil Aviation Bureau should be brought to DOT and combined with the air traffic control function of the Federal Aviation Administration. The creation of an independent accident investigation board (the NTSB) was the price to be paid, since it was felt that the combined FAA would have a conflict of interest in investigating aircraft accidents since the air traffic control provider (FAA) would sometimes be at fault.
  • The Treasury Department higher-ups were upset to lose the Coast Guard to DOT, but Coast Guard brass were surprisingly accepting, in part because there was no upward mobility for USCG personnel at a tax agency but there might be at a transportation agency and in part because at Treasury, the Coast Guard always lost out to the IRS in budget struggles.
  • The Johnson Administration was unable to decide whether the Urban Mass Transit Administration belonged with HUD because it was inherently urban or with DOT because it was inherently transportation. Zwick said that it was actually helpful to have a “fuzzy border between departments.”
  • When Boyd was made the first Secretary of Transportation, he asked Zwick to become Under Secretary (what is today called Deputy Secretary) and manage the agency, but President Johnson vetoed the appointment and instead appointed a Texas crony, Everett Hutchinson, who was not a good administrator and who therefore was unable to help Boyd, who was also generally regarded as a poor administrator.