U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood Profiled

The New York Times published a strikingly candid profile of U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on (May 4, 2009). LaHood is honest and straightforward about his lack of transportation policy credentials, suggesting he is far more valuable to the Obama Administration as a liaison to Congress (who controls the transportation purse) than someone who both understands and can implement public policy.

“I don’t think they picked me because they thought I’d be that great a transportation person,” Mr. LaHood says with refreshing indifference as to how this admission might play if, say, he were ever to bungle a bridge collapse.

Yes, transportation is Mr. LaHood’s day job, a post that a few days ago required him to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for a highway in New Hampshire, speak to a group about the dangers of tailgating trucks and discuss “bird strikes” on CNN.

But one of the astonishing things about Mr. LaHood, 63, is how limited his transportation résumé is, how little excitement he exudes on the subject (other than about high-speed rail) and how little he seems to care who knows it. So why exactly did President Obama pick this former seven-term Republican congressman from Illinois to oversee everything that moves?

Mr. LaHood posits a theory. “They picked me because of the bipartisan thing,” he explained, “and the Congressional thing, and the friendship thing.”

Secretary LaHood openly admits that he got the nod for the job because of his close, personal reslationship withe President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Imanuel. Thus, LaHood has influence and arguably more pull than other cabinet secretaries who may be more expert in their fields.

“There’s the chain of command that you would draw up on the org chart, and the chain of command as it actually happens,” explains Christopher Lu, the White House liaison to the cabinet departments. Mr. LaHood talks regularly on the phone with Mr. Emanuel and eats dinner with him once a week. And he unabashedly plays his Rahm card when it suits his infighting purposes.

A few weeks ago, for example, Mr. LaHood was in Arizona to announce a $36 million light-rail train project when someone from the White House Office of Management and Budget called and tried to halt the event, saying the project might not be eligible for stimulus money. Mr. LaHood called the budget director, Peter R. Orszag, to complain, but the matter only dragged on.

“That’s when I called Rahm,” Mr. LaHood said. “And that took care of it.”

LaHood also appears to have little interest in the issues that consume the bulk of federal transportation policy: highways, urban mass transit, and aviation.

The two transportation issues he is most interested in? High-speed rail and green technology. Those are certaintly within the Obama Administration’s policy portfolio and, to date, appear to be the only ones that have traction in the West Wing.

Friends of Mr. LaHood said it was unlikely he would ever take a public position that contradicted Mr. Obama’s, despite his willingness to defy his party’s leaders in Congress. “People understand the business,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma. “You take the king’s shilling, you become the king’s man.”

When asked if he could foresee disagreeing with the administration on anything, Mr. LaHood shrugged, and eventually shook his head. “I’ve never been passionate about any particular issue,” he said. “I’m not going to sit around agonizing. The answer is, probably not.”