Last updated: 12:53 PM ET, Thu December 01 2016

What Past Roles Tell Us About DOT Secretary Nominee Elaine Chao

Impacting Travel Rich Thomaselli November 30, 2016

What Past Roles Tell Us About DOT Secretary Nominee Elaine Chao

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Elaine Chao, nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as his administration’s Secretary of the Department of Transportation, has a strong yet diverse resume that could tip her hand regarding future decisions about the way Americans travel – and, perhaps, the way workers are paid and protected.

Born in Taiwan in 1953, she is the daughter of a shipping magnate who emigrated to the U.S. in 1958. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a B.A. in Economics and then attended Harvard Business School, graduating with an MBA in 1979.

Chao was previously deputy secretary of Transportation under President George H.W. Bush in 1989, headed up the Peace Corps in 1991-92, and was the Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush during his entire eight years in office.

Chao is the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who she married in 1993, and is the first Asian-American woman to hold a Cabinet-level position.

"The President-elect has outlined a clear vision to transform our country's infrastructure, accelerate economic growth and productivity, and create good-paying jobs across the country,” Chao said in a statement. “I am honored to be nominated by the President-elect to serve my beloved country as Transportation Secretary.”

If Trump is to be believed that one of the priorities of his first 100 days in office is to bolster aging infrastructure, Chao will be a huge asset to the $1 trillion Trump said he wants to devote to roads, highways, bridges, trains and airports.

"Secretary Chao's extensive record of strong leadership and her expertise are invaluable assets in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner," Trump said in a statement.

Trump’s selection of Chao goes against everything he campaigned on – shaking up the establishment and unseating the Washington D.C. power brokers, yet nonetheless selecting Chao, a classic example of a powerful Beltway insider. But the irony is not lost on transportation and travel leaders, who hope that Chao’s background – and, perhaps, her marriage to the Senate Majority Leader – will finally move the needle on improving the country’s infrastructure.

In fact, while the country remains bitterly divided over partisan politics, Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and frequent critic and watchdog of the aviation industry, indicated a desire to cross the aisle.

"Senate Democrats have said that if President-elect Trump is serious about a major infrastructure bill, backed by real dollars and not just tax credits, and without cutting other programs like health care and education, that we are ready to work with his administration," Schumer said in a statement. "I hope Secretary Chao shares that ambitious goal and is willing to work with Democrats to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and create millions of good paying jobs along the way.”

Roger Dow, president-CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said in a statement he applauds the choice of Chao.

“Candidate Trump exhibited a clear understanding of the urgent need for aggressive investment in our infrastructure in order to keep America competitive and spur economic and job growth, and now President-elect Trump is following through with a strong and capable choice to lead those efforts,” Dow said. “Secretary Chao distinguished herself during her eight years at the helm of the Department of Labor, and is exactly the kind of principled but pragmatic leader that can turn the bold infrastructure vision Mr. Trump articulated on the campaign trail into a Beltway reality. We look forward to working with Secretary Chao on federal transportation policies that are pro-connectivity, pro-growth and pro-traveler, which will hopefully include proposals to address the dire condition of U.S. airports within the administration's first 100 days."

But critics of Chao’s time as labor secretary perhaps portend a less aggressive approach when it comes to pay and protection, which would not bode well for airport workers who, this week, held rallies across the country seeking a hike in the minimum wage to $15 an hour – something Schumer, for instance, supports.

The New York Times noted that, ‘as labor secretary, Chao faced criticism that her department favored business and was lax on enforcement and safety issues.’

"She was a terrible Labor Secretary," Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, told Politico. "She cut the enforcement budgets and ... OSHA protections, thereby leaving workers less safe and more likely to be cheated on their wages."

As for the Open Skies Agreement debate, in which the three major U.S. airlines allege that the big three Middle East Gulf carriers are skewing the international aviation marketplace by accepting government subsidies, it appears Chao might be someone not necessarily inclined to change the status quo.

Thomas McGarity, a University of Texas law professor and author of "Freedom to Harm," a book about the labor department that includes Chao's tenure, told the Associated Press that Chao is "a strong advocate of letting the markets function as they will, not intervening into private sector arrangements."