Industry stakeholders and Washington pundits were taken aback when President Barack Obama chose Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood as secretary of transportation. Not only was he absent from the public short list of people under consideration, but he is a Republican whose congressional voting record was not always in tune with the President's beliefs, most notably voting against increasing stem-cell research and voting for restrictions on independent grassroots political committees. On the other hand, he voted for increased transparency for lobbyists' donations and is an advocate for public transportation and infrastructure.
What may have put LaHood over the top, say several Washington observers, is his style. For example, even though LaHood presided over the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, he did so with grace and fairness. “This is a man so thoroughly schooled in the rules of procedure, and so trusted by both Republicans and Democrats, that he was the natural choice to preside over the House during the explosive days when it was debating the impeachment of President Bill Clinton,” David Broder wrote in 2007. LaHood is a throwback to the days when politics were rough and tumble, yet always conducted in a civil manner and without mean-spiritedness. When commenting about his planned departure, LaHood noted that in recent years in Washington politics, “The tone is very negative and disheartening. The decibel level is the highest I've heard in politics.”
Although LaHood has stuck to his low-key demeanor about his role as transportation secretary, his testimony during his confirmation and several public appearances give strong indications about where he will take the agency. He outlined two overarching themes during the congressional hearings. The first is openness. “That means an open door to you and your Senate colleagues, to my former colleagues in the House, and to all Americans who depend on and care about our transportation system…I know that no one person or agency can have all the knowledge, insight or perspective needed, and so I will want to hear what people have to say before policy is set or decisions are made.
“The second is a principle I have tried to live by all through my career — fairness. If I am confirmed, I will have the somewhat unusual perspective of being a Republican in a Democratic administration. This will give me a heightened appreciation of the need to listen to all sides when disputes arise and projects are reviewed…I think we all recognize that there are no Republican or Democratic transportation issues; these are national issues.”
Within days of his confirmation, LaHood went to work implementing the President's plans for economic recovery. He established the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) team, which has the dual task of rapidly making economic recovery funding available for transportation infrastructure projects and monitoring project spending to be sure the process is transparent.
The team's first job is to pinpoint transportation projects, put them in priority order and establish a reporting system to make certain that the money is being spent properly and open to public scrutiny. Obama has said the fastest way to get these projects underway is to give money to states rather than individual municipalities, a plan that LaHood endorses.
To that end, LaHood invited state transportation administrators to the Old Executive Office Building to lay out the opportunities in each state. “These will be done by the book,” LaHood told reporters. “There will be no earmarks and no shortcuts.”
In the end, it may not be such a surprise that Obama chose LaHood, because they share the same holistic political values in which bipartisan, self-service and bickering are the old way of doing business in Washington and transparency and openness will take their place.