OP-ED: Forgotten No More: Why Buttigieg’s Nomination as Secretary of Transportation Matters


Photo by Marc Nozell via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/37996583933@N01/33249197628/

Josh Knell

The position of Transportation Secretary has never been the most glamorous job for rising political stars. The current secretary, Elaine Chao, and the two Obama-era secretaries, Roy LaHood and Anthony Foxx, kept fairly low profiles during their times in office, overseeing the Department of Transportation without implementing any major changes. 

All of that is set to change with Mr. Pete Buttigieg. Despite the short-lived nature of his presidential campaign, Buttigieg has grown from a small town mayor to a national political figure. He frequently appears on national news, has been a vocal campaigner for Biden, and even visited Vanderbilt’s US Elections class last semester. 

Few other cabinet-level positions offer as much reach into the daily lives of Americans as Secretary of Transportation. As Secretary of Transportation, Buttigieg will be able to create national transportation policy and develop new systems of public and commercial transit. Mayor Pete is now laying the groundwork—literally and figuratively—for future campaigns in which he can tout his ability to create positive policy changes in the minority communities that will prove critical to his political future.

After his withdrawal from the presidential race, Buttigieg became an early Biden endorser, which many saw as an attempt to stake his claim on a cabinet-level position within the administration. In addition, winning a statewide race in his home state would prove difficult for Buttigieg given Indiana’s shift to the right in recent years. Naturally, the path for Buttigieg to establish himself on the national stage was in the cabinet, with rumors about his wanting to be nominated for various foreign policy positions, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, or Secretary of Commerce.

Under the Biden administration, the Secretary of Transportation figures to be an active cabinet position, with both Biden and Buttigieg incorporating large infrastructure spending into their policy platforms. As Buttigieg seeks to transform the nation’s infrastructure, he will rely on his experience in South Bend, Indiana, where he piloted programs that gave residents Uber gift cards to pay for transportation to work and added 440,000 feet of sidewalk throughout the city. During his time running for president, Buttigieg called for doubling the Transportation Department’s infrastructure fund, providing more funding for the Highway Trust Fund, and proposed replacing gas taxes with a miles traveled fee.

In official press releases, President-Elect Biden has pledged to revitalize the train industry, establish public transit networks in areas with more than 100,000 residents, and to rebuild the networks of infrastructure essential to transportation. Despite his lack of experience on the federal level, Buttigieg is now tasked with overseeing a 55,000 person department that will try to enact some of the broadest infrastructure changes seen since FDR’s Public Works Administration and Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act. 

The success of much of Biden’s policy agenda will be contingent on the outcome of Georgia’s Senate races in January. In the instance of a Democratic sweep of both seats, the Senate will be evenly split, giving Vice President-elect Harris the power to break ties. Major bills, including those related to infrastructure spending, will be more easily passed, providing Buttigieg the funds necessary to do his job. 

Conversely, if both Republican incumbents win their races, the GOP will have a 52-48 majority in the Senate, meaning any bills pushing for broad change will likely require significant compromise. In the case of a Republican majority, infrastructure spending will become a more central part of the administration’s legislative agenda. Key Senate Republicans have indicated their support for a large infrastructure bill and polls from 2017 and 2018 have found that 70% to 85% of Americans are in favor of expanded infrastructure spending. Senators from both parties may not agree on much, but infrastructure is an area where bipartisan compromise can occur. 

Regardless of the outcomes in Georgia, Buttigieg will be at the forefront of infrastructure change, serving as one of the most visible advocates of Biden’s transportation policies. If successful, Mayor Pete can translate a small midwestern mayorship and an above-average campaign into a prominent role within the Biden administration. The political stardom of Buttigieg continues to rise, with the position of Secretary of Transportation providing him the means to execute significant federal policy that will help bolster his political future.