With little discussion and by a 93-6 vote, the U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed nominee Elaine Chao to be the next Secretary of Transportation. The only real surprise, given her experience and the ease with which she sailed through committee approval, is that she picked up those half-dozen ‘no’ votes—although, considering the growing frustration with President Donald Trump, that number might have been even higher.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD), whose Commerce committee rubber-stamped her recommendation last week, once again praised Chao, saying “it would be hard to come up with a more qualified nominee.” Likewise, Sen. Bill Nelson (D.-FL) the committee’s ranking member, cited Chao’s “common sense” in his floor remarks, adding she will be “in the position to offer level-headed, good experience-based advice to the government going forward.”
And that “experience-based advice” will be needed: Nelson made a point of explaining that he had submitted questions regarding Trump’s executive order suspending travel to the U.S. from a handful of countries, resulting in confusion at airports around the country. Not having received a response, Nelson contacted Chao directly only to learn that the White House team handling the nomination had not passed those questions along—nor had the administration consulted the soon-to-be Transportation Secretary about the travel restrictions, the senator said.
Indeed, Sen. Cory Booker, who had supported Chao in her Commerce hearing, voted against her because of the Trump order, and explained in an email following the vote that he had been “impressed” and will work closely with her going forward.
“However, in less than two weeks, President Trump has run roughshod over fundamental American values, has shown little regard for the Constitution, and has sown chaos and confusion throughout the government,” Booker said. “Without a clear, public denunciation of President Trump’s Muslim travel ban from our nation’s top transportation officer, I could not support this confirmation.”
But those with an interest in upgrading the nation’s transportation infrastructure praised Chao, who is expected to lead the Trump administration’s push for a trillion-dollar construction program.
“Secretary Chao has a long and distinguished track record, from her time as Secretary of Labor where I got to know her best and her service as Deputy Transportation Secretary as well as with the United Way and Peace Corps,” said American Trucking Assns. President and CEO Chris Spear. “Wherever she has gone, Secretary Chao has demonstrated the kind of leadership and vision we need to address our nation’s pressing transportation issues and we look forward to quickly getting to work with her.”
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) likewise applauded the confirmation, noting her support for a “balanced approach to transportation investment” to include both federal funding and private investment.
“We stand ready to work with USDOT to continue efforts to rebuild and modernize America’s aging transportation infrastructure," said AASHTO Executive Director Bud Wright.
NATSO encourages Chao to seek solutions that solve the infrastructure investment challenges without harming the truck stop industry.
“Specifically, we hope that the Department of Transportation will eschew such revenue schemes as tolling and commercializing rest areas, both of which harm interstate exit-based businesses, the local communities that they support and consumers,” said NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings.
Chao, joined by her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and other family members, was sworn in Tuesday evening by Vice President Mike Pence.
"Your leadership and your experience will serve well as the secretary of transportation, overseeing what we anticipate will be historic investments in our nation's roads, bridges, airports and above all in our future," Pence said.