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AirKarp

LaHood the trooper

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Ray LaHood's last several months at DOT have been spent dealing with the Boeing 787 grounding and budget sequestration.

With the nomination of Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx for US transportation secretary expected to receive little opposition in the Senate, Ray LaHood’s days of running the Department of Transportation are nearing an end. LaHood announced he was leaving in late January, but as numerous other Obama administration second-term Cabinet posts were filled, taking care of the DOT slot was put off until Monday.

LaHood was one of the few truly “political animals” of the first-term Obama cabinet, and the former Republican congressman from Illinois and longtime Washington operator stayed on for the past three months in part to handle two vexing issues and clear the path for his successor to get a relatively clean start.  One was the Boeing 787 grounding and the other was budget sequestration’s heavy impact on DOT, namely flight delays stemming from air traffic controller furloughs.

While Foxx will surely be burdened by sequestration and the 787 issue is not completely done, the air traffic controller furloughs (and the flight delays they caused) have been ended by Congress and 787 commercial service looks headed toward being back in full swing worldwide by June. LaHood bluntly warned from the White House press room podium and other forums that sequestration would hit FAA hard and lead to disruption in air service, and then took the heat as his former Republican brethren in Congress accused him of exaggerating and/or going out of his way to make the cuts bite as hard as possible (at President Obama’s behest, so the argument went). But LaHood wasn’t exaggerating and, under the way the sequestration bill was originally written, controller furloughs were not an outrageous response from DOT and FAA.

On the 787, LaHood cashed in on his reputation for being tough on safety (one of LaHood’s achievements was cracking down on texting while driving a truck or car, both through regulation and use of the bully pulpit he seemed to relish) and pushed Boeing to make a comprehensive fix to the Dreamliner’s battery system. Given his safety focus, LaHood’s sign off on the 787 modification carries some credibility.

LaHood has said he told Obama being US transportation secretary since 2009 was the best job he ever had, and whether you liked all of his policies or not, it has to be conceded that LaHood approached the position with vigor. He was not afraid to verbally spar with journalists (though in a way that often led to laughter in the room) or knock heads together in a meeting. He also admirably carried on doing his job in a calm, dignified way during an ordeal in which his son Sam was held in Egypt against his will for more than a month in early 2010.

I saw him at public events during that time. He pressed on as DOT secretary and, as loquacious as LaHood could be on certain subjects, made sure not to say anything that would complicate the US government’s effort to resolve the situation.

Some of the delay in nominating a new transportation secretary likely also had to do with Foxx’s availability. The 42-year old Democrat is seen as a rising star in American politics, and just decided this month that he won’t run for a third two-year term as Charlotte mayor this year.  

Foxx will have a lot on his plate—the US’s transportation infrastructure, in the air and on the ground, is in urgent need of an upgrade. But LaHood helped clear the two most pressing problems facing DOT in recent months off the transportation secretary’s desk.

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