Welcome Back to DoT Secretary Chao

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DoT Secretary Chao

Hill & Industry Thoughts on Her Amazing Career

Statement of President-elect trump:

“Secretary Chao’s extensive record of strong leadership and her expertise are invaluable assets in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner. She has an amazing life story and has helped countless Americans in her public service career. I am pleased to nominate Elaine as Secretary of the Department of Transportation.”

Ms. Chao was Secretary of labor under President G.H.W. Bush, but before that she served as the DoT’s Deputy Secretary (1989-1991). The Secretary then was Sam Skinner and the FAA Administrator was Admiral Busey, who ultimately succeeded in the DoT Deputy Secretary position.

During her two-year stint as the #2 DoT executive, the FAA was focused on streamlining the agency’s procurement process. In particular, she would have been party to the creation of offices for acquisition policy and oversight as well as independent operational test and evaluation oversight.

Her early career involved work with investment banking; so she should be well prepared for the infrastructure spending infusion promised by Candidate Trump. That might suggest that she will review with the well-trained eye the proposed expenditures for real returns from these investments of federal funds. She is also an alumna of the Reason Foundation, a huge advocate for ATC privatization.

Hill and Industry Reactions:

  • S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, released the following statement on the selection:

“From the start, it was my hope that President-elect Trump would select someone to run the Department of Transportation who has a background leading large organizations, knowledge of how Congress and the legislative process work, and the right mixture of public and private experience necessary to oversee a bold agenda to transform America’s transportation and infrastructure systems for the 21st Century.  Elaine Chao embodies these qualities.”

“America faces a number of important challenges when it comes to our transportation networks that will require strong leadership from the executive branch. I am committed to working with Secretary Chao and President Trump to make responsible investments in our infrastructure, streamline transportation improvements, reduce regulatory burdens, encourage private-public partnerships, and encourage innovation to preserve and strengthen America’s economic competitiveness.”

  • U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released the following statement regarding President-elect Trump’s intention to nominate Secretary Elaine L. Chao for Secretary of Transportation.

“I am so proud of Elaine as she continues her accomplished career in public service. I am confident she will do an outstanding job for the nation in this new and important role.”

[Ms. Chao is Sen. McConnell’s wife]

  • A4A President and CEO Nicholas E. Calio

“Elaine Chao is an outstanding pick to be the next Secretary of Transportation. She is a distinguished public servant and leader whose experience in transportation and labor issues, among others, as well as her political skills and the known ability to manage a large organization, will serve the Trump Administration well. Having served alongside Elaine in two previous administrations, I believe her wealth of experience will benefit the millions of Americans who depend on safe, affordable and abundant air travel options every day. We look forward to working with her, and the DOT under her leadership, to usher in a new era of innovation, smarter regulation, and transformational reforms to modernize our nation’s antiquated ATC system that will ensure our infrastructure in the sky is ready to meet the demand on the ground.”

  • National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) President and CEO Ed Bolen

“We know that investment in infrastructure, including for aviation, is a priority for the incoming Trump administration, and the DOT secretary will be key in making this priority a reality. We congratulate Elaine Chao on her nomination to the position, and we look forward to working with her to continue promoting general aviation, and building on the progress being made toward a Next Generation aviation system that serves and protects all stakeholders and communities.”

Chao has extensive experience in policy leadership, including previous service at the DOT as deputy secretary in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, from 1989-1991. She was the first Asian-American woman to serve in a cabinet position, as labor secretary under President George W. Bush from 2001-2009. Chao also served as deputy administrator of the Maritime Administration, then chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission.

She was a member of President-elect Trump’s Asian-Pacific American advisory council during his campaign.

  • David Madland, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy group.

“She was not only hostile to unions, she was hostile to all workers…The only thing they really did was promulgate new rules to make it much harder for unions to operate.”

Some additional thoughts which may be of utility to Sec. Chao:

There is no recipe published for moving from a private executive position to a Member of the Cabinet. A CEO usually has had an opportunity to select and develop her/his team; equally that person’s boss, a Chairman of the Board, is someone with whom the senior most officer of the corporation usually has had extensive working relations.

President Reagan had a history with Drew, mostly in politics, but it was quite clear that the President trusted the judgment of the Secretary of Transportation. That connection allowed Lewis to do his job and the White House need not micromanage the Department. The letters exchanged between the President and the Secretary on Lewis’ resignation clearly reflect that mutual admiration.

The Secretary is expected to convert Executive policies from the White House and OMB; the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was elected based on a platform. It is the job of a Cabinet Member to translate those broad policy goals into specific actions within his Department. In 1980 the management span of the DoT included eight modal administrations plus a large organization which managed the modes and included the remaining powers of the deregulated CAB. The composition for well over 95% of the people within those DoT offices is career staff. Those people represent the long-term expertise in the subjects within the jurisdictions of the agencies.

That workforce is directed by a relatively small number of political employees; the Secretary gets help from the White House in selecting these critical colonels, captains, lieutenants and majors for this policy “army.” Drew made that team of “new hires” feel comfortable around him by both getting to know them through informal and formal meetings. He had a great capacity for remembering his players and giving each a nickname. Their loyalty for Drew was obvious.

The respect and trust between Secretary Lewis and FAA Administrator J. Lynn Helms was a vital link in the relationship between the “holding corporation” and an operating division. Drew knew that Lynn had command of a technical agency. Mr. Helms was a veteran of several facets of aviation and while his visage and knowledge could be intimidating, he clearly appreciated all who worked hard for aviation safety.

What distinguished this Secretary from others was his ability to draw in the career employees.

The largest and most technically competent of the DoT and FAA are the career civil servants qualified through the OPM systems. They are entrusted with the translating broad policies into the precise rules which reflect those directives. The typical civil servant has “worked for” multiple political appointments and they contribute to the final polished product of government.

How did Drew bridge this potential moat to the Reagan agenda?

His major policy meetings were held at his large conference table. His staff invited both the career and political staff persons to attend these discussions. Even more cleverly, the seating chart separated the bosses from the subordinates; so no kicks from under the table could influence the opinions expressed. In furtherance of a free and open discussion, he called on the attendees in a manner in which the technical experts spoke before the appointees. By the time the issue got around the table, the issues had been honestly and openly set.

What really bridged the moat was how the discussion was closed. The Secretary usually announced in detail what his decision was AND took the time to explain any difference between his final position and the views expressed by every participant. By so doing he validated all input and by so doing he made a connection which frequently became support of his direction. As all left the room, most understood the results, almost all bought into the outcome and all went back committed to the direction outlined.

A subtle, secondary benefit from the Lewis approach was exhibited when a similar issue appeared at the people present at the table. Since they had heard the logic, philosophy and analytical support for the A policy, they quickly applied that learning to the next iteration, An and were likely to write a paper bearing the Lewis mind. By taking the time to engage the staff in a lengthy discussion, future policy questions, An+, would be more efficiently addressed. 

For a slightly different perspective, we asked for some suggestions from a few folks (career and political) who worked for various Secretaries and Administrators. The thoughts which they provided from a bottom-up perspective included the following set of questions that a new Secretary or Administrator might use while he/she engages the career staff:

• Who among your career advisers gives you neutral counsel?

• Who does not spin it with their policy goals?

• Who handles stress well?

• Who really understands what you, as S-1, can/cannot do legally?

• Who delivers the needed work product when YOU need it?

• Who is a good manager of staff?

• Who knows how best to deal with OMB, other Departments, the Hill and stakeholders in moving proposals through the APA process?

• Who is good at gathering and fairly summarizing comments from the DoT staff and the inputs of the modal administrations’ staff?

• Who can write, particularly those who understand how you think/write/speak?

• Who shows an ability to explain the incredibly technical aspects of an issue in a way that you understand?

• Who has great instincts as to how the general public (your set of stakeholders), the White House and the Hill are going to react (probably multiple people, one per each audience)?


A great relationship between and among the Secretary, the Administrators and the DoT/modal staffs is critical to a successful tenure at the Department of Transportation.

There is a lot of talent throughout the buildings. Some of those people are more able to support the Secretary in different ways as noted in the above list. For example, recognizing who among them can get the analysis done in a way that suits your needs will assure that when a crisis hits, your briefing paper is not only reliable, but useful.

A Secretary who is able to discern the key attributes within the DoT and modal career staffs will be remembered as a successful executive. Closing the ranks and relying on an inner circle of trusted people will minimize the input to Secretary’s decision- making process.

[In case you missed it, Secretary Foxx has some thoughts on how best to relate to Administrator Huerta]

The above questions were from a narrow group and anyone else with suggestions of what this new Secretary should do to maximize her judgment are welcomed.


Elaine Chao tapped to be Trump's Transportation secretary - POLITICO
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