Biden Names Buttigieg to Be U.S. Transportation Secretary

Biden Names Buttigieg to Be U.S. Transportation Secretary

December 19, 2020  | Jeff Davis

President-elect Joe Biden on December 16 formally announced that former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg will be his nominee to be the 19th United States Secretary of Transportation.

In his remarks in Wilmington, Biden said “We selected Pete for Transportation because the Department is at the intersection of some of our most ambitious plans to build back better…Pete’s got the perspective of a mayor that solves problems and brings people together. He’s got the vision of a next-generation leader with the experience and temperament to lead the charge today, to dig us out of this economic crisis.”

In his own remarks at the announcement, Buttigieg said:

At its best, transportation makes the American Dream possible, getting people and goods to where they need to be, directly and indirectly creating good-paying jobs.

At its worst, misguided policies and missed opportunities can reinforce racial and economic inequality, dividing or isolating neighborhoods, undermining government’s basic role of empowering Americans to thrive.

And now comes a historic opportunity. This administration can deliver policies and resources in transportation that will create jobs, rise to the climate challenge, and equitably serve all Americans — all while continuing to ensure the safety of travelers and workers alike. America has given President-elect Biden a mandate to build back better, and step one in building back better, literally, is to build.

Americans should not settle for less than our peers in the developed world when it comes to our roads and bridges, our railways and transit systems. The U.S. should lead the way—and under this administration, I know it will. We’ll bring together leaders and communities from every corner—labor and business, left right and center, urban and rural, communities of color, tribal nations, mayors, counties, states — everyone who has a stake in American infrastructure — to design a better future. Americans expect us to associate the idea of “infrastructure week” with results, and never again let it be a media punch line.

Buttigieg also spoke about his fondness for long Amtrak rides (while noting that he could only ever aspire to be the second-biggest railfan in the Biden Administration) and that he proposed to his husband at O’Hare Airport.

To get a feeling of Buttigieg’s own opinions on transportation policy issues, see this ETW comparison of the Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren campaign plans for transportation (Buttigieg’s plan was the most detailed), and this writeup of the February 2020 candidate forum on infrastructure in which Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Tom Steyer participated. And for Wall Street Journal subscribers, the best look at his transportation mindset and record at South Bend is this article.

Buttigieg appeared on CNN State of the Union yesterday morning, and in response to a question from Jake Tapper ab0ut getting a bipartisan infrastructure bill next year, he responded:

A deal is not just possible. It’s necessary.

Again, Americans shouldn’t settle for less than our peers around the developed world when it comes to the infrastructure resources that we really count on. And that’s part of the mayor’s-eye view, I think, too, when you come from that background in a community like mine, where daily life is shaped by transportation, but so is our economy.

And that’s true in so many parts of the country. So, when I think about the opportunities ahead, I’m thinking about jobs and economic opportunity. I’m thinking about climate. And there’s no way we’re going to do what we must do as a country unless we move the transportation sector forward.

And you look at what America is capable of on everything from electric vehicle production to what we could be doing with our power infrastructure. The opportunity is huge. And there’s also an opportunity and an imperative when it comes to justice.

It’s disproportionately black and brown neighborhoods that were divided by highway projects plowing through them because they didn’t have the — sometimes the political capital to resist, or sometimes nothing at all coming to the most low-income or minoritized neighborhoods.

We have got a chance to get that right, so, enhancing equity, delivering on climate, creating jobs across the department’s fundamental mission of, of course, ensuring safety.

Reaction from transportation stakeholder groups was positive. See the specific statements from the usual alphabet soup of groups: AASHTO, APTA, TTD, ATA, A4A, ACI-NA, AHUA. More broadly (and predictably), the Conference of Mayors was a big fan of the pick. And the OOIDA statement was, to put it mildly, interesting.

If confirmed by the Senate, Buttigieg will lead a sprawling federal agency with 55,000 employees and a budget (before all the COVID emergency spending) of around $84 billion per year.

Buttigieg will be the fourth person to go straight from being a mayor to being SecDOT, following Neil Goldschmidt (Portland, OR), Federico Pena (Denver, CO) and Anthony Foxx (Charlotte, NC). (Norm Mineta also had mayoral experience (San Jose, CA), but he then had many years in Congress, and as Commerce Secretary, between being mayor and being SecDOT.)

Biden referred to Buttigieg as “the first ever openly gay nominee to lead a Cabinet department, and one of the youngest Cabinet members ever.” (The key word in the first half of that sentence is “department” – Richard Grennell, acting Director of National Intelligence earlier this year under Trump, is the first openly gay person of Cabinet rank.) And Buttigieg is definitely the youngest person to be nominated SecDOT, but not by much:

Nominee Age when nomination announced
Pete Buttigieg 38 years, 10 months, 28 days
Neil Goldschmidt 39 years, 1 month, 11 days
Jim Burnley 39 years, 2 months, 9 days

The nomination of Buttigieg likely means that Biden will stick to the “outside-inside” model that most Presidents have used at DOT. The Secretary (S-1) is the outside person, dealing with the President, other Cabinet officials, Congress, governors, and big city mayors, and goes around making the public case for the Administration’s agenda. The Deputy Secretary (S-2) makes sure that all the trains run on time (literally and figuratively) within the Department and doesn’t have that much of a public profile, instead spending the most of his/her time making sure that the various DOT modes and offices follow through with the decisions made by the Administration. In other words, the Secretary is CEO, the Deputy Secretary is COO.

(Persons who have been publicly reported as being vetted for Administration jobs who would fit the “insider” bill of a Deputy Secretary of Transportation include David Kim, Polly Trottenberg, and Sarah Feinberg, as well as transportation transition head Phil Washington.)

Biden has used a different model at some other departments – his nominees for State and Homeland Security were both former Deputy Secretaries of those departments (and the Agriculture pick was actually the Secretary there under Obama). And the picks for Treasury and Defense are also subject matter experts in those fields who each have decades of specialized experience.

The Buttigieg pick thus more resembles the pick of Xavier Becerra for HHS or Denis McDonough for Veterans Affairs – sharp, generally qualified people who Biden wanted in the Cabinet somewhere but who don’t have a lot of deep subject matter expertise at the place where they wind up. (Marcia Fudge at HUD is a special case – she actually had subject matter expertise at Agriculture, the job she wanted and campaigned for, but she got sent to HUD instead – a job which Bill Coleman turned down 45 years ago when it was offered to him because even then, he felt it was “considered to be the ‘black’ cabinet chair at the table”.)

However, Buttigieg does have experience as DOT’s primary type of customer. Out of that annual $84 billion DOT budget, once you remove the costs of air traffic control and aviation safety regulation (around $14 billion per year), about two-thirds of the remaining $70 billion takes the form of grants to states, cities, and counties (and the special-purpose airport, transit agency, and port subsidiaries of those state and local governments). The financial relationships between DOT and municipal governments are at the very heart of federal transportation policy (especially in the post-deregulation era), and Buttigieg has an understanding of how that relationship works from the petitioner side, which will give him valuable understanding in his forthcoming role as a grant-maker.

There now arises the question of how much input Buttigieg and the other Cabinet secretaries will have in selecting the staff for their departments. Four years ago, it was pretty clear: the White House picked the Deputy Secretary, then Secretary Chao picked the Under Secretary (the #3 official at DOT),

As of this writing (the early morning of December 21, 2020), here is the status of Biden’s Cabinet announcements, which are now mostly complete:

Heads of Departments
State Antony Blinken NY
Treasury Janet Yellen CA
Defense Lloyd Austin GA
Justice
Interior Deb Haaland NM
Agriculture Tom Vilsack IA
Commerce
Labor
HHS Xavier Becerra CA
HUD Marcia Fudge OH
Transportation Pete Buttigieg IN
Energy Jennifer Granholm MN
Education
Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough MN
Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas DC
Other Cabinet-Level Appointments
WH Chief of Staff Ron Klain IN
OMB Director Neera Tanden CA
Climate Ambassador John Kerry MA
Domestic Climate Czar Gina McCarthy MA
Director of Nat. Intel. Avril Haines NY
EPA Admin. Michael Regan NC
SBA Admin.
U.S. Trade Rep. Katherine Tai DC
UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield LA
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