The highlight so far has been a testy exchange between Chao and Maria Cantwell, the Democratic senator from Washington, who pressed the nominee on infrastructure investment in the Pacific Northwest. Chao's line so far on questions about spending and priorities has been: confirm me and we'll talk. No surprise here, but between the lines, Chao seems to be confirming the conventional wisdom that the Trump Infrastructure Plan will involve as little public spending as possible.
In other news, the Highway Trust Fund is in "bad shape," Chao argues, due to better gas mileage in new cars. No solution proposed.
The lion's share of the conversation so far has been about air traffic control. No questions so far about Chao's past statements or experience.
Here we go. Chao has touched on safety, congestion, and air traffic control, but what stands out so far is the emphasis on the private sector—both as the driver of new technologies like drones and self-driving cars, and as a partner for infrastructure development. "The government does not have the resources to address all the infrastructure needs in our country," Chao says, so we need to think creatively about new sources of funding.
She dodged a question from Sen. Nelson about the privatization of air-traffic control employees, a priority of House Republicans and airline companies
The hearing for Elaine Chao, Trump's nominee for transportation secretary, is getting underway now. It's expected to be a walk in the park for Chao. She's the consummate GOP insider. She served as secretary of labor under George W. Bush and is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is introducing her now. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, has his mind made up. "If you were to imagine an ideal candidate to tackle these challenges," he said, "it would be hard to come up with a more qualified candidate than we have today." Ranking member Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat, notes that Chao comported herself with "grace and excellence" during the Bush years, and is a great friend of his wife. As I said, cakewalk.
But don't tune out just yet: Chao will play a huge role in determining the future of crucial issues like self-driving cars, vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology, consumer protection for airline customers, drone regulation, highway and aviation safety, deteriorating bridges and roads, and the upkeep of freight infrastructure from ports to railroads.
And in addition to hearing her thoughts on those issues, this may be our first opportunity to hear a little more about what the mysterious Trump infrastructure plan has in store for us. The Washington Post dug up a speech Chao gave to CPAC in 2009, shortly after Obama's stimulus plan was announced. "Beneath the warm and fuzzy bipartisan rhetoric," she said, "is the same old tax-and-spend crowd that has now taken control of our government and is implementing policies that will turn our country into Europe."
Expect her tone to be more moderate today—but in the friendly air of this committee, she may also feel free to speak openly about the Trump administration's plan for American infrastructure.