Sunday, December 21, 2008

I Don't Really Understand The Thinking Here...

I'm still scratching my head with the news of who was named to be the Secretary of Transportation. I can't fathom why Obama has gone with Republican Congressman Ray LaHood from downstate Illinois.

Now, having lived in Illinois, I know LaHood's name. But I didn't really know that much about him. A little bit of Internet searching and I find nothing in his credentials that makes him a good choice for the Transportation Secretary. Let's look at the House committees he's on:

Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies
Subcommittee on Legislative Branch

Even the non-legislative caucuses he is on don't really give him any transportation experience. The only thing that comes close is the Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus, and that's not really about transportation. Who knows, maybe he is in charge of renting the bus, as the co-founder of the Congressional Bipartisan Retreat Committee, for their outings to Atlantic City.

He has been the director of a planning commission before, but that's about as close as he gets at all.

Obama has said he is going to push for a huge infrastructure project when he takes office. That means, if you don't already know, fixing bridges and roads, building new public transit systems and expanding old ones, among other things. If you are going to have the biggest infrastructure project since the Great Depression, don't you want a guy running the Department of Transportation who really knows what he's doing?

I'm mostly disappointed by who didn't get it. After the election, when all the newspapers started speculating who would get each position, the short list for Transportation included the name James Oberstar. He's a Democratic Congressman from Minnesota. Let's take a look at his committees. First and foremost, he is the Chair of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. And he also sits on the all the subcommittees for Transportation & Infrastructure:
een wheels, four wheels, two wheels, feet, rubber on asphalt, steel on steel, electric power, combustion power and human power. Oberstar knows it all when it comes to transportation.

Now it is quite possible that Oberstar was asked and he declined. It could be that he is more valuable in his current position than as the head of the president's department. I would have to agree, generally. But Obama could find somebody in between a guy who knows it all about transportation and a guy that knows nothing?

My big fear is that Obama sees this department the same way that Bush does, as an unimportant one. One that he uses as a bone to throw at the other party so that he can claim to have a "bipartisan" cabinet. This is exactly how Bush used it, putting the only Democrat in his cabinet in this post. Though at least I'm fairly confident Obama won't use it to try to kill Amtrak.

But the Senate should have some questions ready for Mr. LaHood. I have a few I would ask, and they are not even political or agenda questions. He has a record of voting for funding for Amtrak and transit, so I'm not against this appointment on ideological grounds. But I want to know if he has the basic knowledge to run this department. So here are my suggestions to the senators who will be in the confirmation hearing:

Congressman LaHood, can you tell us what a catenary is and how it is used in transportation?

If he misses the first question he should get an automatic "no" vote. If he can answer it correctly, then continue down the list:

What are the benefits and downsides to running electric trains on overhead catenary wire versus third-rail power?

What is the fundamental difference between light rail transit and heavy equipment rail transit? Can you give examples of why you would choose one over the other in specific situations?

How many track miles does Amtrak serve? Which states are not served by Amtrak?

What is Amtrak's yearly operating subsidy and ticket revenue? How did 2007 rank in Amtrak ridership levels compared to past years?

How much federal money was spent last fiscal year on mass transportation and how much on roads?

What are the fundamental differences between commuter rail, regional rail, long-distance trains and the passengers they serve?

These are a few of the questions I would ask just to see if he knows what the hell he is doing at all. I would also ask about long-term plans for Amtrak expansion and urban mass transit, as well as his thoughts on the plans for a nationwide high-speed rail network and what timeline for its implementation he would like to see.

If LaHood could answer the majority of these questions I would feel a lot better about him running such an important department.

But as it stands right now, I think this is by far the weakest cabinet appointment Obama has made.


(S)wine said...

It has to be some sort of political back-channeling. I have no idea who this man is.

sleepyjer said...

Seeing as Obama would like to invest money in infrastructure (roads, bridges), his experience in appropriations may be the key.