Boyz In The LaHood
So the second Republican has been tapped for President-elect Obama's cabinet - former Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood as Transportation Secretary. In past Administrations, the Transportation Secretary hasn't been that powerful a job and has been a dumping ground for the inevitable token member from the opposite party. Heck, even Bush had Democrat Norman Mineta installed there. However, with the focus on infrastructure improvements being central to Obama's economic recovery platform, and with a lot of that going to rail and transit, DOT might be more important this time around. And it's being handed to a Republican. Of course, there's an open question about how involved LaHood would be on those infrastructure issues, rather than the normal work of DOT, a lot of which involves air travel.
The reception has been mixed. Streetsblog is not impressed.
We've been calling around to Congressional staffers, advocates and insiders to get a better sense of what Obama's appointment of Ray LaHood as transportation secretary means for those pushing for sustainable transport, smart growth, livable streets. While no one is giving up hope on the Obama administration a month before the inauguration, the general consensus is pretty clear. As one insider summed it up: "It's a real read-it-and-weep moment."
The selection of a downstate Illinois Republican with close ties to highway lobby stalwart Caterpillar Inc. is being taken by many as a clear sign that progressive transportation policy is, for now, nowhere near the top of the Obama's agenda.
"Obama still hasn't made the transportation - land use - climate connection," Petra Todorovich, director of Regional Plan Association’s America 2050 program said. "It's clear he's thinking about these things in separate categories." For Todorovich and other advocates, the LaHood pick was the second shoe to drop this week. The first piece of bad news arrived on Monday when Obama trotted out his "green dream team," his appointments to key environmental, energy and climate posts, and the transportation secretary was nowhere to be found.
Friends of the Earth is a little more hopeful:
“Congressman LaHood’s challenge is great. He must ensure U.S. transportation policy supports, rather than undercuts, the Obama administration’s goals on energy and climate change. This means he must work closely with Obama’s nominees for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, and with Obama’s new energy and climate czar, Carol Browner.
“While his overall record on energy and environment issues is poor, LaHood has in recent years broken with many in his party to support crucial investments in passenger rail and public transportation, and he is a member of the Congressional Bike Caucus. These are reasons to hope that he may be open to the visionary transportation policy that is needed to move our country forward.
“Friends of the Earth looks forward to working with Congressman LaHood to bring about such a policy.”
I think it's clear that Obama doesn't connect green policy and transportation policy, but it's probably because his green thinking outweighs the thinking on transportation. I don't think LaHood will have much of a power center. He is moderate for a Republican, and he has promoted expanded rail and transit funding in recent years, so I don't think he'll be an obstacle to that either. At some point, however, Streetsblog is right: to truly remake our energy future we need to provide options to alter the way we live - with smart growth, proper land use and livable streets. The era of suburban sprawl cannot continue because our efforts on reining in greenhouse gas emissions will collapse. DOT actually could play a valuable role in setting that policy, but Obama doesn't want to go there. His urban background, however, suggests he understands the importance of it, both for the economy, the environment and quality of life. So we'll see.
...just to round out the cabinet, there's former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk as US Trade Representative. I think it was clear with Xavier Becerra's remarks when he turned down the job that Obama didn't really think trade was a first- or second-order priority, and he didn't connect trade to our larger economic problems, so this may be another area where the pick doesn't entirely matter since that policy will be attacked from a different angle.