In a Jan. 11 confirmation hearing that appeared more obligatory than substantive, Transportation Secretary nominee Elaine Chao said the Department of Transportation under her leadership would seek to balance safety regulations with economic efficiency and transportation innovation with concerns over displaced jobs and public trust.
The latter referenced the inroads autonomous vehicles are making in the automotive and trucking sectors, as well as the rapid growth of drones and their delivery potential. If confirmed to lead the DOT, Chao said she would seek to bolster innovation while also addressing public discomfort with automated vehicles and concerns of those like truck drivers who could be put out of work by such technology, even if such a scenario is years off.
“We are facing new technologies, emerging technologies that will bring about great dislocations,” she said. “How we as a society deal with that [without] stifling or dampening innovation — that’s the balance [we want]. It’s not an issue that can be decided by one person or one department. It requires national attention and discussion.”
Chao also told the Senate panel while public safety will be the top priority for her DOT, she seeks to strike a balance between overly restrictive regulations and the need for transportation efficiency and growth.
“The role of the government is to foster an environment for jobs to grow,” she said. “I’m very much in support of government creating the environment through which job creation and economic growth can occur.”
The hearing was the first step in Chao’s Constitutionally required confirmation by the Senate. The committee will report to the full Senate either a favorable or unfavorable nod before a vote by the full chamber.
Chao appeared an insider and longstanding member of the D.C. club, with several senators on the body’s Commerce, Science and Transportation committee noting their personal relationship with Chao, with a few even sending well wishes from their spouses.
To that end, Chao’s husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, offered testimony on her behalf and introduced her to the panel.
Chao’s most prominent role in her public career has been Secretary of Labor, a position she held during the entirety of George W. Bush’s presidency, 2001-2009. But Chao also has deep ties with the DOT, having served a stint as its deputy secretary and maritime administrator under President George H.W. Bush. “If you imagine an ideal candidate [to lead the DOT], it’s hard to come up with someone more qualified,” said Senator John Thune, chairman of the Senate’s transportation committee.
Chao portrayed herself as tough and as an embodiment of the American dream. She was born in Taiwan, and her father immigrated to the U.S. when she was a small child. Chao, her mother and her sisters joined three years later, taking a 37-day boat ride from Taiwan to New York City, where she lived in an apartment in Queens. She spent her evenings learning English and “adapting to a foreign culture,” she said. She graduated from Harvard with an MBA in 1979 and held major private sector positions such as vice president of Bank of America, president and CEO of the United Way and president and CEO of the Peace Corps, among others.
“Transportation is the underpinning of the greatest economy in the world,” she said in her opening remarks. “But these gains are at risk because of aging infrastructure, fatalities on highways and failure to keep up with emerging technologies. I am honored for the chance to lead the department at such a pivotal historical time.”
On infrastructure funding, Chao mostly walked President-elect Trump’s line: The federal government needs to spur private investment in U.S. infrastructure via tax breaks and other incentives, such as toll revenue.
“The government doesn’t have the resources to do it all,” she said. “All of us need to put our best thinking forward as to how to fund aging infrastructure.”