Ray LaHood: The Obama Appointment You Should Be Really Worried About
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This piece first appeared in Worldchanging.
Soon, the U.S. Senate will hold a confirmation hearing on the president-elect's choice of Ray LaHood for Secretary of Transportation. No one expects that hearing to be anything but easy for LaHood. That's too bad, because it shows that when it comes to greening the stimulus, we're not only missing the forest for the trees, we're not even seeing the trees right.
In case you haven't been following the news, LaHood is a conservative Illinois Republican with little transportation expertise and almost no administrative experience, who has earned a LCV lifetime voting score on critical environmental issues of 27 percent, and who maintains deep financial connections to the very industries he's now supposed to regulate. He may be no worse than most of those who've lead the Department of Transportation, but his appointment is a profoundly uninspiring vote for business as usual at a time when we need change, and an strong indication that the administration doesn't get that energy policy, technological innovation, urban planning, environmental sustainability and transportation are all bound up together, and no solution to our problems can be had without tackling them all together.
LaHood's appointment is so disappointing to transportation advocates who've been waiting eight years for change, that they're boiling with indignant disbelief, branding him "an unbelievably disastrous pick," "Status quo we can believe in" and "same.gov" (a dig at the Obama transition site, change.gov). As one insider summed it up: "It's a real read-it-and-weep moment."
LaHood supporters point out that the president-elect promised to appoint Republicans, and LaHood is trusted by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Obama had to throw Republicans a bone somewhere, they argue: why not Transportation?
Because given the crises we face, the U.S. Department of Transportation is not a minor agency. This year it had a $58 billion budget and employed almost 60,000 people. What's more, the Secretary of Transportation will guide the spending of vast amounts of stimulus spending, oversee the auto industry bailout and be responsible for a raft of critical policy decisions that will dictate the shape of our cities and the choices we have for getting around for decades -- and thus indirectly our energy policies as well, since transportation is where much of our energy use goes. In fact, in an era of climate change, energy crisis and economic distress, Transportation may be one of the most important posts in the president's cabinet.
A good Secretary of Transportation could help lead the U.S. into a bright green economy. A status-quo Transportation Secretary will not only weaken our chances of getting real reform in priorities and practices, he will drive off the very kind of smart, innovative people government agencies most need to attract back into government if they are going to drive change. As Streetsblog reveals:
Progressive transportation policy advocates are also concerned that LaHood will have trouble drawing good people to the agency. "In terms of attracting talent, no one I know is going to want to work for this guy," said a former Federal Transit Administration official. "He's got a horrible environmental record, he's bad on climate change and he's Caterpillar's bag man. Can we get a worse appointment?"
And we're going to need a volley of new ideas in transportation. DOT has authority, or at least influence, over all sorts of important transportation policies, including things like aviation standards, shipping and trucking, insurance rules, road construction standards. Want complete streets, pay-as-you-go car insurance or high speed interstate rail connections? DOT will have a hand in deciding whether you get them.