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Bill Straub: Chao as transportation secretary could place McConnell in a bind over infrastructure

WASHINGTON – President-elect Donald J. Trump’s (Egad!) vow to “drain the swamp’’ that is the nation’s capital was thought to mean he intended to haul in new blood to solve the nation’s woes and avoid appointing the same old people to the same old posts.

So it was something of a surprise this week when the next president (hahahahaha, sorry, I can’t help it) chose Elaine Chao, the secretary of labor under President George W. Bush, a dues paying member of the establishment and a certified Kentuckian to boot, to serve as secretary of transportation in his dawning administration.

Sometimes it’s just odd what you might find at the bottom of a marsh.

Kentucky has never been well represented in top cabinet posts going all the way back to the founding of the republic. Now Chao can claim two such titles, assuming she is confirmed and there’s no reason to expect otherwise, especially since her husband, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Louisville, is in there calling the shots.

The good news is she can’t possibly be the worst Trump cabinet nominee, which is, indeed, damning with faint praise, something like acknowledging that Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo is not the worst Rob Schneider movie. After all, the president-elect’s choice to serve as attorney general is Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL, who doesn’t appear to think it’s necessary to provide African-Americans with the franchise.

There are others equally disturbing – Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos looks on public schools like Tecumseh Sherman looked on Atlanta – but Chou certainly has the obligatory governmental experience for the job, performed admirably as president and CEO of United Way of America during a difficult period for the organization and has proven to the extent possible that she’s not crazy – a characteristic that may ultimately not suit her well in this burgeoning administration.

That doesn’t mean she’ll do a particularly good job. Her tenure at the Department of Labor was not well received, nor should it have been. During her years as secretary, from 2001 to 2009, she obediently followed Bush White House whims and displayed little aptitude for promoting original ideas. As a result she presided over one of the most anti-worker periods in recent history.

Former congressman George Miller, a California Democrat with a long history of supporting working people, asserted that Chou took the Labor job “determined to weaken the agency’’ and that she “repeatedly torpedoed rules designed to help workers.’’

The indictment is vast and airtight. One of her first actions as labor secretary was to seek the repeal of a rule providing workers with protections against repetitive motion injuries, one of the leading causes of physical impairment in the workplace. She went on to weaken the Wage and Hour Division, responsible for enforcing overtime, minimum wage and child labor laws.

The Government Accountability Office, after reviewing more than 70,000 case files from 2005 to 2007 – all within her tenure – concluded that complaints from low-wage workers regarding the failure of their employers to pay them the minimum wage were inadequately investigated, permitting scofflaw bosses to cheat those workers out of due wages. Chao, by the way, consistently opposed increasing the minimum wage, allowing it to erode to its lowest value in fifty years.

But the biggest mark against her was, ironically given that she calls Kentucky home, mine safety. The Department of Labor administers the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. During the first four years of the Bush administration, with Chao serving as secretary, almost $5 million in funding cuts forced the layoff of 170 MSHA staffers – about seven percent of the workforce. Seventeen proposed MSHA initiatives to protect miners’ safety and health were discarded. The number of mines referred by the MSHA to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution dropped from 38 in 2000 to 12 in 2005.

All that led to a drop in safety inspections. On Jan 2, 2006, the Sago Mine in West Virginia, with a long history of safety violations, collapsed, killing 12 miners.

So there’s no reason to think that Chao will go down as one of history’s great cabinet secretaries, although, by means of comparison, her contemporaries may wind up making her look like George Marshall.

Regardless, her appointment sets up an interesting dynamic between Trump and McConnell, who presently are embroiled in an interesting political tango little more than seven weeks before the former’s inauguration.

Now, stuck with the least qualified individual ever to potentially hold the lofty position of leader of the free world, McConnell has the unenviable task of dealing with him.

Despite the Cheshire cat grin McConnell sported when he guided the president-elect through the halls of Congress shortly after the election, the Senate GOP leader already is organizing a power play. McConnell threw his support to Trump shortly after the end of the primary season – his original choice, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, laid an egg and vamoosed the campaign rather urgently – but if anyone detected the slightest hint of enthusiasm in his eventual choice, they have remained mute.

Now, stuck with the least qualified individual ever to potentially hold the lofty position of leader of the free world, McConnell has the unenviable task of dealing with him. He already has rejected dribbles of ongoing Trump nonsense – jailing and deporting flag burners, crazy talk suggesting that millions of people voted illegally – and is hunting for ways to impose his will on the body politic.

But there’s an issue looming – Trump’s stated desire to spend one trillion Yankee dollars over a 10-year period to restore the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, using the dough to fix bridges, build roads and boost transit systems.

Trump, in his usual modest, understated manner, insists that the investment – funded primarily through tax credits provided to firms undertaking the jobs — will “put millions of our people to work” and make America’s infrastructure “second to none.” While details remain lost in the ozone – details of all Trumpian proposals, like building a wall along the Southern border, are out there somewhere – the president-elect maintains the program will pay for itself.

It’s fair to say McConnell is not sold on the idea – Republicans have consistently sought “pay fors’’ to offset any costs a new spending program might produce and McConnell at least appears concerned the Trump infrastructure package will prove costly.

And McConnell has rather consistently stood in the way of President Obama’s infrastructure proposals, including, for instance, a $60 billion measure in November 2011 that offered $50 billion on highway, rail, transit and airport improvements and another $10 billion as seed money for an infrastructure bank. It came as part of the administration’s stimulus plan in wake of the devastating 2008 recession. McConnell and his GOP colleagues opposed much of that revitalization effort.

“Democrats are more interested in building a campaign message than in rebuilding roads and bridges,’’ McConnell said at the time. “And frankly, the American people deserve a lot better than that. The people of Kentucky deserve better than that.’’

So McConnell opposed, and often filibustered infrastructure packages offered by a Democratic president he, frankly, loathes despite his protestations to the contrary.

Now McConnell is faced with what many conservatives view as an iffy package offered by a Republican president-to-be that one can expect to be sold to lawmakers by, among others, the secretary of transportation who, in this scenario, is married to the Senate Republican leader who can give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

It’s a bit of a cliché but in this instance its literally accurate – strange bedfellows.


Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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