Obama's Transportation pick sails through Senate

The Senate has unanimously confirmed the nomination of Ray LaHood, President Barack Obama's pick for Secretary of Transportation, in a voice vote on the Senate floor.

A highway overpass along Baltimore Beltway, Maryland.
Susan Walsh/AP
Transportation Secretary-designate Ray LaHood, a Republican, listens during his nomination hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. He was confirmed Thursday night.

The Senate has unanimously confirmed the nomination of Ray LaHood, President Barack Obama's pick for Secretary of Transportation, in a voice vote on the Senate floor.

The atmosphere surrouning the confirmation of Mr. LaHood, a Republican and former Congressman from Illinois, has been nothing short of chummy. The Washginton Post writes that LaHood "was warmly received" by the Senate Commerce Committe, who on Wednesday forwarded his nomination to the Senate floor. Post writer Carol D. Leonnig goes on to describe the reception as "so genial that several senators treated the committee's nod as a foregone conclusion." At one point during the proceedings, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, began to address LaHood as "our soon to be –" before stopping himself.

Here's what Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, the committee's chair, had to say about him:

As a former member of Congress with experience overseeing Executive Branch agencies, I know that you are well aware of the challenges that accompany managing such a significant department, with its wide-ranging programs, numerous facilities, and roughly 60,000 employees.  I have no doubt that you will bring strong leadership to the department and a keen eye for fiscal responsibility that will be essential in this era of constrained budgets and skyrocketing deficits.

Many environmentalists, however, aren't quite as thrilled. Citing LaHood's lousy rating from the League of Conservation Voters and his extensive industry ties, particularly with Caterpillar, Inc., the world's largest manufacturer of mining equipment, Worldchanging's Alex Steffen last week called his nomination "disappointing":

He may be no worse than most of those who've led the Department of Transportation, but his appointment is a profoundly uninspiring vote for business as usual at a time when we need change, and a strong indication that the administration doesn't get that energy policy, technological innovation, urban planning, environmental sustainability and transportation are all bound up together, and no solution to our problems can be had without tackling them all together.

Mr. Steffen notes the central role that transportation will play in shaping America's energy future, from overseeing the bailout of the auto industry to building mass transit to determining if and when the US gets an electric-car infrastructure. "[I]n an era of climate change, energy crisis and economic distress," Steffen writes, "Transportation may be one of the most important posts in the president's cabinet."

Steffen is not alone in suggesting that Obama  seems to be playing down the importance of the DOT. Streetsblog, which advocates for cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders, notes that President Bush appointed a Democrat, Norman Mineta, as Transportation Secretary. This, according to Streetsblog, indicates that the positon is seen as a dumping ground for a token representative of the opposition.

As President George W. Bush did before him, Obama has chosen to use the transportation secretary slot as a place to show bipartisanship. "This sends the message that the transportation secretary is a throw-away political appointment who doesn’t matter,' said a city transportation official who, like others, asked to remain anonymous to preserve their relationship with the US DOT. "This is the slot for the token Republican. It’s the bottom of the barrel. A bone you can throw."

That said, LaHood did appear to emphasize sustainability during his two-hour hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee. Here's what he said as part of his prepared testimony [PDF]:

[O]ur transportation system and the  development it enables must be sustainable.  We must acknowledge the new reality of climate  change. This has implications for all areas; investments in intercity rail and mass transit, as called for in the economic recovery and reinvestment plan, are part of the equation, but only part. Sustainability must be a principle reflected in all our infrastructure investments, from highways and transit to aviation and ports.  President-elect Obama is committed to this principle and so am I.

According to Reuters, LaHood also said that he would move quickly to finalize a sharp increase in fuel efficiency standards. The Bush administration had signed off on rules to raise the average for cars and trucks by 25 percent, to 32 miles per gallon, by 2015, but held off on finalizing these rules amid the turmoil in the auto industry.

LaHood also said that he would work to get full funding for Amtrak. Last year, Congress authorized about $13 billion in funding over five years to the intercity rail system. As the liberal blog Think Progress notes, LaHood has broken with many in his party to increase funding for Amtrak. He is a member of the overwhelmingly Democratic Congressional Bike Caucus.

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