This is a special view on the confirmation hearings provided by POPVOX interns from Brown University. We hope you enjoy and learn from their fresh perspective and front-row seat on Capitol Hill.

On Wednesday, members of the Senate held a confirmation hearing for Elaine Chao, President-elect Trump’s pick for Secretary of Transportation. A confirmation hearing is the first step the Senate takes in approving Cabinet nominees. If confirmed by the Senate, Elaine Chao will lead the Department of Transportation. Given Chao’s extensive experience as a member of both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush’s Cabinets and her close relationship with many members of the Senate, she faces a relatively smooth confirmation process.

POPVOX Elaine Chao confirmation hearing for Secretary of Transportation

Wait, so what is a confirmation hearing?

The Constitution requires the “advice and consent” of the Senate for the Cabinet. In order for a Cabinet nominee to be confirmed, they must go through a hearing with the relevant Senate Committee. For the Secretary of Transportation, it is the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The nominee must be approved by the committee before going to the Senate floor for a full vote.

So who's on Senate Commerce?

Senate Commerce is chaired by Sen. John Thune [R, SD], with Sen. Bill Nelson [D, FL] serving as Ranking Member. The committee is comprised of 14 Republicans and 13 Democrats. See if your member serves on Senate Commerce.

So, what does the Department of Transportation do?

As the name indicates, the Department of Transportation is in charge of creating and maintaining accessible and safe transportation, ranging from highways and air travel to railroads and metro systems. Essentially, anything that involves infrastructure is a part of the department’s responsibilities.

Who is Elaine Chao?

Many lawmakers said Chao is one of Trump’s most qualified picks given her years spent in previous administrations. Chao served as deputy Secretary of Transportation under George H.W. Bush, and as Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush. In the private sector, Chao was Director of the Peace Corps, and served as CEO of United Way of America, following her time in the Bush Administration. Chao was also the first Asian American Woman to be appointed to a cabinet level position. In her questionnaire to the committee, Chao stated that she intends to repair and expand infrastructure, close the gap between efficiency and accessibility of rural and urban transportation, and wants “effective enforcement of safety measures.”

Why should I care?

The Department of Transportation has a wide set of responsibilities that can affect your flight home for the holidays to your commute to work. The next secretary will have to decide the best way to keep federal regulations up to speed with rapid modernization, like updating air traffic control from radar to satellite or drafting regulations for drones and self-driving cars. Less futuristic, the department also controls permits from highways and bridges, which has the potential to expedite repairs around the country. Part of Trump’s agenda as President is a $1 trillion dollar infrastructure plan. The secretary would be in charge of figuring out the specifics of implementation, namely how to pay for it. Chao’s stance of using taxpayer dollars or some form of a private/public partnership could directly impact citizens.


So, what happened in the actual hearing?

Given competition with more high-profile hearings for Secretary of State and Attorney General, people were not fighting to get into Chao’s hearing. Hearings are open to the public, so anyone can go. Unlike other confirmation hearings, this one didn’t include any protestors. The committee had a surprisingly bipartisan attitude. Chao’s husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell [R, KY], introduced her, prompting lots of jokes about marrying out of his league. In addition, Sen. Rand Paul [R, KY] gave Chao his own statement of support. Each member of the committee had a chance to ask questions, alternating between Democrat and Republican. While most Senators asked questions relating to their specific state, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar [D-MN] asking about snowmobile permits, themes of airport modernization and increasing highway fatalities emerged from both parties.

Chairman Thune, Ranking Member Nelson, and Sen. Cory Booker [D, NJ] all voiced concerns about The Next Generation Air Transportation System, a Federal Aviation Administration program. NextGen aims to modernize air traffic control, making air travel safer and more efficient.

Sen. Brian Schatz [D, HI] referenced a 7% increase in highway fatalities related to drunk driving and distracted driving and asked what Chao would do to combat both. Chao responded almost identically to every question, saying that the issue was important and she looked forward to learning more.

POPVOX Elaine Chao Confirmation Hearing for Secretary of Transportation media

The most divisive issue, however, was how to pay for infrastructure improvements. Chairman Thune, along with Sen. Deb Fischer [R, NE], brought up the FAST Act, a funding and authorization bill, as an example of how to fund both rural and urban transportation. Fischer said there will be a shortfall of money after the FAST Act expires, so the department will have to come up with new forms of funding. Chao mentioned "creative solutions" like public/private partnerships that give tax breaks to private investors that invest infrastructure projects. While most Republicans on the committee supported a decrease in direct spending from the government, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito [R, WV] raised concerns about private investors not wanting to start projects in rural areas because of lower profits. 

Two senators asked Chao about the department’s role in climate change. Sen. Tom Udall [D, NM] referenced transportation as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and Sen. Ed Markey [D, MA] asked about continuing to follow his own Energy Independence and Security Act that increased MPG requirements for cars, but Chao said she did not have enough information to comment.

Chao breezed through her hearing, with the majority of the members from both parties saying they were excited to work with her after her confirmation. Chao's hearing stood in stark contrast to the more combattive hearings of the day.

What happens next?

The Committee will submit written questions, and likely vote next week before sending her nomination to the Senate floor. 

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