Mayor Pete’s Secretary of Transportation Nomination Probably Doesn’t Matter

He's not exactly a transportation expert or Washington dealmaker, but the position simply isn't that important to the issues that affect us most.
December 15, 2020, 8:34pm
Mayor Pete
LOGAN CYRUS / Contributor via Getty Images

One of the quiet hopes I had for the Biden administration was that they would put qualified adults in charge of government agencies. Which is why the news that Pete Buttigieg will be Biden's pick for transportation secretarydisappointed me. Buttigieg is an adult, but he is not qualified for this job, at least not in the traditional sense. 

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There are two theories for what makes someone qualified for a Cabinet position. One is that they are a subject matter expert in the relevant field, such as a longtime administrator of a similar agency at a lower level of government. The other theory is someone with lots of Washington experience who knows how to get things done at the federal level. For example, President Obama picked Ray LaHood as his first Secretary of Transportation, a then-Republican Congressman who did a perfectly adequate if unspectacular job helping broker some bipartisan deals. 

Buttigieg fails both of these tests. He has little experience in the transportation field. He supported and undertook some pretty solid transportation policies as mayor of South Bend, but approving the redesign of a few streets downtown to be more bike-and-pedestrian friendly is a far cry from administering a $90 billion department with 55,000 employees, which is equivalent to roughly half the population of South Bend (the city itself has about 1,000 employees and a budget of $358 million). And this will be his first job in Washington.

That being said, it is entirely possible Mayor Pete will be a perfectly fine transportation secretary. His (extremely limited) experience with transportation issues on the local level shows he at least knows how to implement solid reforms that institute some semblance of transportation balance even in a car-dependent city.

But the biggest reason Mayor Pete would likely be a perfectly fine transportation secretary is because many people would be a perfectly fine transportation secretary. I know this because the current one, Elaine Chao, is one of the least qualified people imaginable for the job.  Unlike Chao, Mayor Pete knows how to talk about the issues affecting transportation in the U.S. without sounding like a poorly programmed robot and doesn't have several obvious conflicts of interest. And yet, nearly all Americans would be unable to name one transportation policy good or bad undertaken by Chao, least of all who the secretary even is.

This is because the job of transportation secretary really isn't that important in the grand scheme of things. The stuff that really matters—how much money the department gets and for what—is not decided by the transportation secretary. It's determined by Congress. And most of the important decisions about what projects get designed and funded are made on the state and city level. Barring profound incompetence or corruption, the secretary doesn't do a whole lot implementing any of this. That job falls to lower level career bureaucrats.

To be sure, it reflects poorly on the Biden administration that Mayor Pete for transportation secretary is a pretty obvious repayment of an early endorsement on the campaign trail rather than appointing someone who actually knows something about federal transportation policy. It undermines the return-to-competence ethos Biden is trying to signal heading into his administration. 

But one of the paradoxes of government is that perception is often reality. Nobody understands this better than Mayor Pete himself, who image-enhanced and messaged his way to being a brief but real presidential contender despite being even less qualified for that position than transportation secretary (perhaps because the very idea of being "qualified" to be president is no longer a relevant question in this country after electing the single least qualified human in the species' history). Buttigieg, for all his faults, knows how to turn perception into reality. He successfully talked his way from South Bend mayor into a cabinet position. Now, it will only take a little of his deft midwestern straight-talking charm to convince people he'd be a fine transportation secretary, too. I wouldn't bet against it.