Former secretaries to Foxx: Reach out to DOT staffers

James Burnley, Andrew Card, Samuel Skinner, Rodney Slater, Norman Mineta, and Mary Peters sat down to reflect on their time at DOT and what advice they could offer to Foxx, who succeeded Ray LaHood as Secretary on July 2.  The gathering was part of the David R. Goode National Transportation Policy Conference, organized by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center at the National Press Club in Washington.  

The secretaries offered counsel on a variety of fronts, beginning with Mineta’s droll suggestion that Foxx “start with ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’.”  But the one area on which all the secretaries agreed was on the importance of engaging the career staff at the department.

Card, who served as secretary under President George H.W. Bush, and later as White House Chief of Staff under President George W. Bush, encouraged Foxx to respect the career employees at DOT and develop a level of trust with them so that he can “invite them to be wise counselors.”  He noted in particular their ability to navigate the congressional bureaucracy in transportation policy better than the political leadership at the department.  Card admitted that many of the career employees have a certain “tunnel vision” in approaching departmental policy from their parochial lens, but contended that this is a useful perspective to have so long as the secretary brings his own “peripheral vision” to the job.

Mineta, who like Foxx served as a mayor of a mid-size city (San Jose) prior to joining the George W. Bush administration, said Foxx should “seek the best advice” from career employees and let the political appointees deal with the politics. Peters, who succeeded Mineta under Bush, found it critical to engage with career staff and provide them with a “true north” of his goals for the Department.  During her tenure, Peters found that career staff was always willing to engage in whatever goals were set as long as the secretary clearly and effectively communicated those goals.

Former Clinton secretary Slater described the career staff as “very committed, capable and steady…an excellent team.”  He recalled including staff in strategy and decision-making session, and their important contribution in the development of administration policy.

As one who never served in Washington prior to his appointment as Secretary by George H.W. Bush, Skinner empathized with Foxx’s adjustment to his new post.  He advised Foxx to put “a couple good people around you who have been here” and who are “well-respected, apolitical, know what they’re doing, and can help you.”  He was surprised to find how few career staffers were included in policymaking by his predecessors and encouraged Foxx to involve them in the Department’s work.  “The Department of Transportation has some tremendous people in it,” Skinner said.

The current two-year reauthorization does not expire until next summer, but as former Reagan administration secretary Burnley said, these bills are “so daunting and so complex” that there’s very little time for Foxx to have a learning curve.  He will undoubtedly – and wisely – seek advice from various sources.  But according to those members of the exclusive club which Foxx has just joined, he would do well to get to know the building on New Jersey Avenue and M Street.

Chidester is the director of Public Programs and manages the biennial David R. Goode National Transportation Policy Conference at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.