Pete Buttigieg, the US Secretary of Transportation, is perhaps the most closely-scrutinized cabinet official I have witnessed since I began closely following politics leading up to the 2000 US presidential election. While I think many of us would like to see him do more, I offer a more sympathetic evaluation of his tenure thus far.
In Defense Of Transportation Secretary Buttigieg – Why I Am Far Less Critical Of His Tenure
Yesterday, Kyle tore into Buttigieg in a piece that counted up a number of issues (resort fees, Ohio train derailment, FAA system issues, and Southwest meltdown) and lamented that the Secretary has not done enough in his role. Let me start by saying that Kyle’s analysis is not unreasonable and Kyle and I have spoken often about “Mayor Pete” and our shared hope that he would bring needed reform across many modes of transport in the USA. Nevertheless, my assessment is different and due to the flurry of comments yesterday and clear interest in this issue, I thought I would offer my take today.
I cannot help but first note that it seems to me that particular animus is directed toward Buttigieg because he is openly gay. Indeed, review the comments (here, here, here) and you’ll see that is what some immediately reduce him to (to be clear, Kyle did not). That evaluation reduces him to an affirmative action hire by the Biden Administration because he is homosexual.
I would strongly push back on that narrative. Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg is more than a gay man. He’s more than a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He’s a shrewd politician. Somehow, his style resonated with many voters and he was a serious contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2020.
In order to avoid Bernie Sanders running away with primary victories, he and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D – MN) decided to strategically throw their support behind Biden early (even after Buttigieg won the Iowa caucuses). It worked. Biden became the Democratic nominee and later the 46th President of the United States.
Buttigieg’s appointment recognized his loyalty to Biden in the campaign.
But was he over his head from the very start? The US is quite unique in the West in that the political ruling class is old. These octogenarians, like senior flight attendants, have worked hard in the system over the decades to build up seniority and frankly, I like it that way. I am firmly against term limits (that’s another issue…).
Mayor Pete, however, brought a breath of fresh air into the Biden Administration. Here was a very smart and articulate, Harvard-educated Navy veteran with the sort of experience on a local level and in a professional environment (at McKinsey) that nicely balanced out the experience of others who had spent decades working at the federal or state level.
To those who say that Buttigieg was in over his head from the very start, I would push back that there is always a degree of learning on any job (including up to the POTUS) and that the key to success is not knowledge, which can be acquired, but good instinct and teachability. Now let’s turn to some specifics.
Resort Fees Beyond The Purview Of DOT
Early on his tenure, like Kyle, I expressed hope that Buttigieg could help end the proliferation of resort fees, which represent bait-and-swtich pricing tactics that mislead consumers. In that piece, from December 202o, I conceded that tackling these fees was likely beyond the scope of Buttigieg’s statutory authority, but hoped that the bundled nature of selling travel and transport might allow an opportunity for stricter regulation.
With recent Supreme Court jurisprudence, I don’t think DOT would be able to stretch its authority to regulate these fees. There are, however, other agencies in the Biden Administration that can tackle this and I hope that the POTUS meant what he said during his last State of the Union address.
So on this point, I cannot fault Buttigieg for failing to act.
Measured Response To Ohio Train Derailment
If anything, I think COVID-19 showed us the problem of governments rashly overreacting to threats to public safety (I will unpack this more in an upcoming story as it relates to a new scientific report from the UK).
The train derailment in Ohio was a serious issue. And indeed, the magnitude of that disaster was not properly understood in the immediate aftermath.
But I am not going to condemn Buttigieg for failing to get out in front of the cameras beside the wreckage and deliver a speech. It’s always so easy to Monday Morning Quarterback, isn’t it?
“I was taking pains to respect the role that I have, the role that I don’t have — but that should not have stopped me from weighing in about how I felt about what was happening.”
I find that reasonable. And I find the anger coming from right-wing media over his “inaction” to be unfortunate. As Buttigieg said at the same press conference:
“And to any national political figure who has decided to get involved in the plight of East Palestine … I have a simple message, which is, I need your help. Because if you’re serious about this, there is more that we could do to prevent more communities from going through this.”
This accident was tragic. It happened, in part, due to neglect from federal, state, and local officials spanning multiple decades and both parties to properly regulate emergency systems onboard trains. It also happened, more directly, due an overheated wheel bearing. I think it’s a stretch to blame Buttigieg for that. I applaud Buttigieg for calling upon all of us to work together to ensure another accident like that does not occur.
FAA Infrastructure Neglect Is A Long-Standing Problem
The systems that undergird Air Traffic Control in the United States are woefully outdated and the Federal Aviation Administration often seems impotent in bringing about meaningful change. But to blame Buttigieg for this is patently unreasonable.
A system that has been neglected not just for years, but for decades cannot be updated overnight. Instead, there must be bipartisan resolve (and funding) to make this happen. It seems to me that Buttigieg has cogently articulated the need to update this, but he is not the king…nor is Biden. Congress must fund this and even if it does, new systems are not off-the-shelf products: this will take years to finish.
Trump-era Transportation Security Elaine Chao did absolutely nothing to modernize ATC…and guess what? She also could not snap her fingers and make it happen. At least Buttigieg is talking about it. Trump talked about it too and nothing got done. Maybe Buttigieg will have better luck.
Southwest Airlines Meltdown Can Only Be Blamed On Southwest
I talked earlier about certain elements of the media trying to blame Mayor Pete for December meltdown at Southwest Airlines. What utter hogwash. I won’t recap the argument here, except to say that Buttigieg is not responsible for Southwest dragging its feet on updating its crew scheduling systems. Other airlines faced the same winter weather and did not melt down.
What Buttigieg Has Done Right
It’s not like Buttigieg has done nothing at all during his tenure. Perhaps his most important contributions, however, are beyond the public eye.
Buttigieg was instrumental in helping to pass the massive bipartisan infrastructure bill early in Biden’s presidency: he lobbied moderate Republicans to support it and that bill is already creating better roads, highways, and bridges that will benefit generations to come.
Furthermore, Buttigieg has done a far better job than his predecessors of holding airlines accountable to consumers. Progress is slower than I’d like, but forcing airlines to actually publish what passengers are entitled to when severe delays and cancellations occur is a huge victory for consumers. The fact that United and Frontier voluntarily added complimentary seating for families traveling with young children is exactly the way conservatives should want government to work: encourage companies to make voluntary changes so that regulation does not become necessary.
Earlier today, the FAA awarded airports across the country $1 billion for much-needed improvements. Chicago O’Hare alone will receive $50 million (and anyone who travels through ORD knows how much is needed to make the airport a more presentable gateway to the USA). Speaking of the funding, Buttigieg explained:
“Americans deserve the best airports in the world, and with demand for air travel surging back, this funding to improve the passenger experience couldn’t come at a more urgent time. These grants will make it faster and easier to check your bags, get through security, and find your gate, all while creating jobs and supporting local economies.”
I don’t like the word deserve, but this is what I want a Transportation Secretary to do. This is how federal tax dollars can be used to create more efficient commerce and in so doing, lead to private sector flourishing.
And finally, he’s a nice guy. Speaking as someone who lived in the political world working on Capitol Hill and in the White House, character matters and I believe Buttigieg’s character makes him fit for public service. When I met him at Bob Dole’s funeral, I appreciated his kindness and I empathize with the struggle he went through with a son who shares the same name as my son. We disagree on many issues. If you know my background, you know I am not a left-wing cheerleader. But nevertheless, I think Buttigieg is unfairly attacked and I am hopeful that much more can be accomplished to protect and promote the traveling public during the remainder of his time at DOT.
Overall, I think Buttigieg has done a fine job thus far and I don’t speak as a partisan. While Kyle’s piece yesterday was not unreasonable, I view these issues in a different light and I think we would all do well to hold Mayor Pete accountable, but also better understand how the federal government functions and the limits on his power and influence.
image: @pete.buttigieg / Instagram