by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Here’s a question for you: What if a Cabinet secretary took a couple months off from work and nobody noticed?
What if his extended vacation took place right amid a crisis in which one would expect his agency to be of paramount importance, and it turned out that no one even thought to turn to him for answers?
This is exactly what just happened with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. The new adoptive father took paternity leave starting two months ago and has been missing in action ever since, just when the nation’s transportation infrastructure has come under unprecedented pressure. Not only are supply chains strained at the moment, but Congress and the president are also attempting to push through a major infrastructure package.
One would imagine that a transportation secretary would become relevant in such a situation. Then again, that presupposes that the Transportation Department has any sort of relevance.
What does the Department of Transportation do? In theory, some of its component agencies — for example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration — have functions pertaining to interstate travel, but these operate as nearly independent entities. Even transportation security is handled by Homeland Security, a completely separate department.
Former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao did actually try to do something productive from within the department by forcing California to conform with federal standards for automobile emissions. But that’s pretty rare. More often, this agency is either ignored, as when President George W. Bush appointed a holdover from former President Bill Clinton’s administration to the post for the first six years of his presidency, or treated as a bauble for the president’s political allies. And who was more deserving of a bauble than Buttigieg, who quit the 2020 presidential race after winning Iowa and endorsed Biden so as to prevent Bernie Sanders from becoming the Democratic presidential nominee?