Only two months on the job, and a month removed from a public rebuke from the White House, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is being careful with his words.
The former Republican congressman is hedging by attempting to separate his personal views from official Obama administration policy, all the while working with a host of other federal agencies to advance his boss's agenda.
The trouble for LaHood came last month after he suggested that a controversial plan to charge Americans for the miles they drive might need to be considered to raise money to fund much-needed roadwork.
His comments were swiftly slapped aside by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. "It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration," Gibbs told reporters after being asked about LaHood's comments.
And so began LaHood's equivocations.
Speaking the following week at a luncheon for state highway officials, LaHood was noticeably cautious when answering policy questions. After saying that public-private partnerships were gaining favor with a handful of lawmakers and may be part of the solution to a looming shortfall in the federal highway account, LaHood quickly threw up both hands. "That is not an endorsement," he said.
He took a similar tack last week when addressing the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over a host of mass transit provisions.
LaHood suggested it may be time for lawmakers to cut red tape that prevents some transit agencies from using federal dollars to cover operating costs but interrupted himself to offer a disclaimer that Obama might not feel the same way. "I'm speaking for myself now, OK?" LaHood said.
"I want to be open-minded that some of these funds could be operational funds," he told the panel. "Now, that's Ray LaHood's point of view. I want to work with the administration. I want to work with all of you. I want to work with these folks that are in a real pickle right now about trying to find out how they are going to pay their bus drivers and train drivers and all of their engineers."
Man in the middle
While much of his hedging can be attributed to the public spanking from Gibbs, some of LaHood's other sidesteps may be more likely a result of his 14 years as a member of the House.
This month, LaHood has found himself in the awkward position of defending an Obama proposal that is heavily opposed by the bipartisan leadership of seven key committees and subcommittees, including the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on which LaHood served.
Obama is calling for an accounting change he says would increase transparency by altering how transportation spending shows up in the federal budget. The problem with the change, the lawmakers say, is that it would subject transportation spending to the annual appropriations process, forcing state and local agencies to limit their planning to no more than one year in the future.
LaHood has refrained from taking sides, instead telling lawmakers that as a former member of Congress he understands their concern. "We will work with you," he told Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who chairs the Banking Committee. "What we will try and do is have members of this administration work with you and your committee to reach some kind of consideration for the issues that you raised."
The dispute over the budgetary change is not the first time LaHood has found himself torn between his former role as a lawmaker and his new one as a member of Obama's Cabinet.
During his confirmation hearing, LaHood, an unapologetic defender of earmarks, was forced to deflect questions about how he would view the use of the common but controversial practice by lawmakers of tagging federal cash for specific projects.
"President Obama has made it clear that in the stimulus bill ... there will not be earmarks," LaHood said. "I work for President Obama and the American people." He added he thought it was possible that the exclusion of earmarks in the stimulus package could very well carry over to the upcoming highway reauthorization.
LaHood did not fully back down, though, saying that ultimately spending was a decision best left to Congress. He did add, however, that if future transportation bills lack earmarks, "it's not going to cause me any heartburn."
Since being confirmed in late January, LaHood has been an active member of the Obama team, if not in policymaking at least in visibility.
He has been by the president's side at a number of public appearances, including Obama's announcement that he wanted new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) requirements finalized -- a task that will fall to LaHood and DOT -- and the administration's rollout of the $48 billion in federal cash that last month's stimulus package is providing for roads, rail, transit and aviation. Obama has tapped LaHood, along with Vice President Joe Biden, to ensure that the cash is spent quickly and fairly.
Meanwhile, however, LaHood and DOT are taking a back seat to a number of other departments when it comes to a host of policy decisions.
At a time when Obama and congressional Democrats have vowed to recast the nation's transportation strategy to curb greenhouse gas emissions and cut down on fuel consumption, LaHood says DOT will play a secondary role in addressing Obama's climate goals. Instead, he said, the heavy lifting on that issue will likely be left to U.S. EPA chief Lisa Jackson and Carol Browner, the White House coordinator for energy and climate issues.
Last month, LaHood was named as a member of the presidential auto task force charged with deciding the fate of General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, both of which have received billions from the federal government to stave off bankruptcy.
But LaHood's role on the committee, not unlike that of a number of the other Cabinet members on the panel, has been sporadic at best, with two outside special advisers handling most, if not all, of the day-to-day operations (Greenwire, March 17).
Even LaHood's role in crafting the auto fuel-economy standards may shrink. Obama is considering a nationwide policy for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks that would rely on a national suite of environmental restrictions linking the implementation of the new CAFE standards with a California emissions law that more than a dozen states are hoping to adopt if EPA grants California the right to enforce it.
When it comes to the forthcoming surface transportation reauthorization, which will provide the bulk of federal funding for roads, rails and transit for the next six years, LaHood says he will draft a set of principles for the White House but will mostly leave it up to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to make decisions.
"We're going to try to keep up with Chairman Oberstar," LaHood said of James Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the panel.
Two of the reauthorization principles that LaHood has touted the most are high-speed rail and "livable communities," which tie housing and land use with transportation planning.
But even on those two signature issues, LaHood has resisted staking sole claim to either.
Yesterday, LaHood and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan announced the creation of an inter-agency task force to coordinate transportation and housing investments. The partnership, they said, would work to provide more transportation alternatives and create more affordable housing that is accessible to employment opportunities.
As for high-speed rail, which at Obama's urging received $8 billion in the stimulus, LaHood has said he has drafted a memo laying out the possible corridors across the country that are eligible for the cash but that the final decision would be up to Obama.
Asked by reporters yesterday if he would make public which corridors are listed in the memo, LaHood said he would not.
"That memo," he said, "is for the president."