After toying for a month with making Rahm Emanuel his secretary of transportation, President-elect Joe Biden instead gave that job to former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday. If confirmed, Buttigieg will run an executive department with a $72 billion budget and nearly 55,000 employees, or more than half of the number of people who lived in the city he was mayor of for eight years.
The problem with the Buttigieg pick isn’t that it’s baffling—though it is, as was Marcia Fudge’s selection to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development after being skipped over for the agency she was prepared to run on day one. Rather, the issue is that the selection of a small-town mayor to run the Department of Transportation makes perfect sense in Washington. Mayor Pete helped lock up the primary for Biden by dropping out before Super Tuesday and then dutifully campaigned for him through the general election, and now he’s getting a job as a reward.
That Buttigieg has little experience with transportation issues—proposing to your husband at O’Hare does not count—and definitely no experience with road safety that would qualify as “good,” is beside the point. Even for Biden, who famously loves Amtrak and considers infrastructure as one of his top legislative priorities, the transportation post is little more than a patronage position for a key supporter. It’s often been a way for presidents to give a bipartisan veneer to their Cabinet picks. The only Democrat in the Bush administration was Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, and Obama’s first Transportation Secretary was former Republican congressman Ray LaHood.
It should not be this way, especially for Biden, who ran to restore Americans’ faith in their government by both not destroying it or promising too much he couldn’t deliver on. Biden could have appointed someone who understands what it’s like to be a transportation worker, like AFA-CWA president Sara Nelson, or someone who has run a state or local transit agency before. Instead, we got Pete, who in recent days was reported to be a potential ambassador to China. Same difference.
The nation’s dogshit infrastructure and public transportation aren’t the fault of the last however many transportation secretaries alone. The bigger problem is a lack of funding and federal policy being dictated less by progress and efficiency than by stuffing as much money as possible into the pockets of contractors without anyone noticing. But when it comes to how seriously the next administration will take transportation issues—which has a major impact on jobs and climate as well—it doesn’t seem like a positive sign that the job is going to someone whose lack of experience was mocked during the campaign by, you guessed it, Joe Biden.
And taken together, there’s less ideological coherence to Biden’s domestic cabinet picks so far than the administration it’s replacing. The Trump Cabinet from top to bottom has been a collection of people who want to eliminate regulations and sabotage the federal government, from Betsy DeVos to Scott Pruitt to Ben Carson. So far, Biden’s domestic team, with the exception of Janet Yellen at the Department of Treasury, has just been a hodgepodge collection of Obama administration alumni, vocal Biden backers, and people for whom it seems Biden is just trying to find a spot.
As with Fudge, Buttigieg could be fine in the job, at least until he leaves in 2023 to become Chief Policy Officer at Uber Police. At least he’s not Rahm, I guess. But if the Democrats want people to take them seriously as a party of good government, they should probably find a way to start acting like it.