La Hood: A Soft Touch in a Hardscrabble Job
Policy + Politics

La Hood: A Soft Touch in a Hardscrabble Job

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Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stood in the White House briefing room last month and alternately scolded and pleaded with lawmakers to return from their August vacation and pass a bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration. The only Republican currently in President Obama’s cabinet, LaHood was chosen for the job in large part because of his party affiliation and rapport with lawmakers, but after weeks of congressional inaction, his frustration boiled over.

“End your vacation for a couple days, get off the beach, get out of your mobile homes or whatever you're traveling in come back to Washington, pass a bill,” LaHood said.  

Republicans and Democratic lawmakers were at loggerheads over aviation labor issues, and when they left Washington without extending funding for the agency, some 4000 DOT employees, and tens of thousands of construction workers were idled.

When a short-term deal was worked out after his plea(a further short-term extension of funding is set to pass this week through January along with funding for a surface transportation through March) the effusive 65-year-old former junior high school teacher couldn’t help but brag.

“It worked! Yeah, we shamed them into passing a bill,” he said in a recent interview with The Fiscal Times. Lawmakers, he said, “started to hear from constituents” and, they finally realized, “This is just silly. This is a no-brainer.”

Blunt-spoken, LaHood’s words can get him in hot water as they did when he advised owners of Toyotas with a history of sudden acceleration to “stop driving” the cars. He corrected himself quickly and urged them to take their vehicles to a dealer.

The Department of Transportation has long been a backwater, but LaHood has put it on the front page on issues that range from the dismissal of a handful of napping air traffic controllers to his intense efforts to combat “distracted drivers” who text, to his push for boosting infrastructure spending, and to investigating—and ultimately clearing—Toyota’s autos of electronic failures. 

LaHood even pens one of the most followed blogs—“Fast Lane,” which is rated as the Number One cabinet blog on Technorati.

When pressed on whether DOT’s clout had waned since the departure of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, with whom LaHood is very close, he demurred. The no-nonsense DOT chief referred to his influence in Obama’s jobs speech last week. “The fact that the president gave a speech [calling for] $50 billion of infrastructure—I think DOT still has a little clout around here.”

Still, battles lie ahead as lawmakers likely will butt heads over the ruling by the National Mediation Board that makes it easier for unions to organize airlines, and the gasoline tax, which at 18.4 cents a gallon, hasn’t been raised since 1993

While some advocates favor a gas tax increase, LaHood made clear the White House opposes it. “Lookit, we have a very tough economy—we have 9% unemployment and the president has said with 9% unemployment we can’t be raising the gas tax.”

But working with Congress is increasingly challenging for LaHood, who served in the House seven terms representing a district that includes Peoria, Illinois, after being chief of staff to former House GOP Leader Bob Michel. Some new lawmakers just won’t compromise, he said. Though he did not mention the Tea Party by name, LaHood clearly had them in mind: “There’s two main components to getting anything done in this town: good policy and good politics. Unfortunately for some people that were elected in the last election the policy part is not important,” he said. “When you take the policy out, you don’t leave any room for compromise.”

Lahood’s gregarious personality, accessibility and decisiveness win high praise. He reflects “the values of a more traditional, mainstream Republican—someone you can talk with. He is easy-to-get along with,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., in an interview.

DeFazio, a senior member of the Transportation Committee, noted that some cabinet members brush off lawmakers, but not LaHood. “I know senators who can’t get through to [Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric] Shinseki—he just will not take a call from a Member of Congress. It’s beneath him, but LaHood, sure. He’s right there—he has called me back on weekends, at night, whatever—he’s been great.”

Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., another committee veteran, mentioned several other DOT chiefs whom he respected and added, “I put Ray LaHood in that same category—I give him high marks.”

Even some aggressive safety advocates gush. “I like him—he’s responsive—no beating around the bush,” said Joan Claybrook, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the Carter administration. “Yes, he plays to the cameras, but he gets things done. He’s a fighter. I’m a fan.” LaHood and Clarence Ditlow, the tenacious executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, battled over the Toyota issue. “He doesn’t like people who don’t agree with him—he’s thin-skinned,” said Ditlow. Still, even he went on to praise LaHood as “a plus” on safety issues overall. 

As he looks ahead, LaHood professes nothing but optimism notwithstanding the bitter partisanship and looming election season.

“Lookit, I am an optimist,” he said. Asked about switching parties, LaHood would not hear of it. “I’d probably have to resign this job because they’d want to maybe put a Republican in here. Lookit, I am a Republican. I always have been. I always will be. I am proud of it. But I also am proud to be part of President Obama’s team.”