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Congressman Ray LaHood Named New US DOT Secretary

Setting the direction of trucking safety will be a small part of the job of the new Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, named yesterday by President-elect Obama. He was not on the short list of candidates about whom there had been a lot of speculation. John McCain has praised the choice.

After reading about Lahood, I don’t agree with those who speculate that this indicates low priority for transportation in the new administration. My hunch is that he was chosen to drum up bipartisan Congressional support for funding of major transportation infrastructure projects that Obama plans to help jumpstart the economy.

There are a few clues to how people associated with trucking view him. Land Line quotes Rod Nofziger, Director of Government Affairs for the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, as saying, “Mr. LaHood would be an excellent pick by the Obama administration. It’s very encouraging and would be a great thing for small-business truckers.” He got some campaign contributions from the American Trucking Association, and got a 100% rating for voting with the ATA.

LaHood is an Arab-American Republican Congressman who for 14 years has represented the area around Springfield and Peoria, Illinois. He did not run for another term in 2008. According to Jeff Zeleny at the New York Times, LaHood has experience on the House Appropriations Committee relevant to oversight of the sort of large-scale public spending on infrastructure projects. He also has close bipartisan relationships with President-elect Obama and Chief of Staff Designate Rahm Emanual..

Mike Dorning at The Swamp blog quotes Emanue’s recent comments on the House floor about LaHood:

If you look back and I think if you ask all our colleagues, somebody when our framers thought of a member of Congress what they had in their mind’s eye, that person would be Ray LaHood, whose decency, his sense of what it is that he was doing here on behalf of who he was doing it for never changed in his 30 years. He is an individual who, while firm in his principles, was very flexible about his opinions.

LaHood also has long been a favorite of reporters covering the Capitol for his willingness to say on-the-record what other members of Congress will only whisper anonymously.

A story on ABC News lists some of the priorities facting the US DOT, and does not list anything at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. It includes:

Upgrading the nation’s transportation infrastructure – roads, bridges, etc. — even though the Highway Trust Fund is running on fumes. The gas tax has become a less viable way of funding highways, so increased use of tolls with an EZ-Pass system may be considered.

– Upgrading Amtrak rail system.

Upgrade the Federal Aviation Administrations’ air traffic control system, relief of air traffic congestion, and aircraft inspection.

– Promotion of more fuel efficient vehicles, in conjunction with the proposed bailout of the auto industry.

Evan Sparks at Aviation Blog predicts that the appointment of LaHood may mean that Obama does not plan to devote a great deal of attention to transportation issues – much like our current president, whose cabinet’s token Democrat was also at DOT.

Andy Birkey at the Minnesota Independent gives some hometown insight on LaHood due to having grown up in Peoria. He reports that LaHood is of Lebanese Christian family background. He refused to sign Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in ’94, supported the impeachment of President Clinton, is a close friend of Rahm Emanuel (Obama’s chief of staff), supported subsidies for Amtrak, and voted for recent legislation to promote public transit.

Some bloggers have been critical of the appointment. Robert Cruikshank at California High Speed Rail Blog observed that “LaHood doesn’t appear to have much of a record as a transportation expert.”

Marcus Sanford at Austin Bike Blog noted that LaHood is a member of the Congressional Bike Caucus and has voted in favor of higher fuel standards, Amtrak funding, and renewable energy.

As for LaHood’s campaign contributions from special interests of the years, you can figure that out for yourself.

As a “redneck lawyer” from Georgia, I know that leaders can transcend their backgrounds when promoted to new positions. Ray Lahood has been a congressman from a rural and small town district in downstate Illinois, where Caterpillar is the main industry. While big national issues such as urban transit, air travel safety and for that matter motor carrier safety have not been big vote getters in his district, he has shown interest in upgrading transportation. Obama and Emanuel know him well and apparently think he has capacity for growth and effectiveness.

We just need to make sure he is educated about trucking safety issues.

Ken Shigley is a trial attorney in Atlanta, Georgia who has been listed as a “Super Lawyer” (Atlanta Magazine), among the “Legal Elite” (Georgia Trend Magazine), and in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers (Martindale). He served as chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Litigation Institute, is on the National Advisory Board for the Association of Interstate Trucking Lawyers of America, and is a frequent national seminar speaker for the Interstate Trucking Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice. A Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, he was a faculty member for ten years at the Emory University Law School Trial Techniques Program.