- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2009

Outgoing Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood, President-elect Barack Obama’s pick for transportation secretary, will face several daunting challenges if Congress approves his nomination, including a shortage of air traffic controllers, crumbling highway infrastructure and a fluctuating petroleum market.

But those that know the retiring seven-term Republican lawmaker from central Illinois say his reputation as a bipartisan consensus builder makes him a wise choice to lead a complex department that includes more than a dozen divisions and an almost $60 billion budget.

“It’s pretty clear to me that LaHood was picked in large measure because he is a man that has the capacity to deal on civil and productive terms with members of both parties,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and a former Clinton adviser.

“The business of transportation policy and transportation funding over the next few years, which will not be a trivial matter, is going to require consultation and negotiation.”

Mr. Obama has said he chose Mr. LaHood because he was “the best person for the job regardless of party.”

“Ray’s appointment reflects that bipartisan spirit, a spirit we need to reclaim in this country to make progress for the American people,” the Democratic president-elect said at a Chicago news conference on Dec. 19 before he introduced Mr. LaHood as a Cabinet nominee.

Mr. LaHood touted his ability to reach across jurisdictional lines to get things done.

“I understand it is the local folks who know best their transportation needs,” he said at the news conference. “We’ll bring that same approach to the Department of Transportation.”

Mr. LaHood, 63, was the second Republican Mr. Obama has picked to serve in his Cabinet. The first was Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who Mr. Obama asked to stay on in that role.

Mr. LaHood was first elected to the House during the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, when the party wrested control of the chamber from Democrats for the first time in four decades.

But unlike many House Republicans in the mid-1990s, he didn’t fall lock-step behind Speaker Newt Gingrich, instead quickly establishing himself as a moderate who wasn’t afraid to buck party wishes.

Mr. LaHood was among a handful of Republican House candidates in 1994 not to sign the Contract With America, a Gingrich-inspired manifesto that detailed the actions Republicans promised to take if they became the majority party.

His independent leanings haven’t always ingratiated him with conservatives. The anti-earmark Club for Growth slapped a low 36 percent rating on Mr. LaHood on its 2007 congressional scorecard. And the taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste gave Mr. LaHood an 11 percent rating in 2007 and a lifetime score of 49 percent.

Mr. LaHood’s nomination helped fulfill a campaign promise by Mr. Obama to reach out to Republicans if elected. But the selection raised some eyebrows among critics who complained Mr. LaHood lacks the experience to lead Transportation.

Mr. LaHood served six years on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but he never chaired the body. His only committee assignment the past legislative session was on the Appropriations Committee.

House Transportation Chairman James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, told the Wall Street Journal in December that Mr. LaHood’s “temperament” and “managerial talent” make him an “excellent” choice to lead a department that employs more than 50,000 workers ranging from air traffic controllers to railroad inspectors.

When asked, Mr. Oberstar couldn’t come up with an issue championed by Mr. LaHood during his time on the committee in the 1990s. He added, however, that “he was a team player all the way through.”

Mr. LaHood wasn’t available to comment for this report.

But Mr. Obama said Mr. LaHood has the knowledge and skill to “remake our transportation system for the 21st century.”

“Few understand our infrastructure challenge better than the outstanding public servant that I’m asking to lead the Department of Transportation,” the president-elect said at the Dec. 19 news conference.

Mr. LaHood has touted his work on Capitol Hill to secure funds to improve central Illinois’ transportation infrastructure, such as the reconstruction of Interstate 74 in Peoria, the expansion of U.S. Highway 67 and new airport construction and expansion.

“We have a tremendous opportunity before us to rebuild our infrastructure and reinvigorate our economy, and I look forward to the challenge,” he said.

Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said he doubts that Mr. LaHood’s modest experience on transportation matters would hinder his ability to serve as secretary.

“I think in a Cabinet secretary you are looking principally for someone who is a team player and who can work well with the Congress,” he said. “President-elect Obama made it clear he wanted to have some Republicans in his Cabinet, and I think Ray LaHood is the kind of Republican who belongs there.”

Mr. Galston, of the Brookings Institution, agreed, saying there is a long history of Cabinet secretaries with little prior experience in matters relating to the departments they lead.

“If you’re looking for a bold new paradigm for transportation policy in the next generation, I wouldn’t think he would be very likely to produce that out of his own head,” he said. “On the other hand, that’s rarely a criteria for a senior appointment anyway.

“The question is, will he be able to recognize the need for new thinking when it hits him in the face, and will he have reasonably good taste in people who can tee up some options for him?”

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