WASHINGTON – Elaine Chao was sworn in Tuesday as Transportation secretary, hours after the Senate confirmed her with a 93-6 vote.
Chao, a former assistant secretary of Transportation* and Labor secretary, won praise from both Democrats and Republicans in the divided Senate.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who heads the committee that reviewed Chao’s nomination, said she has a momentous opportunity to improve safety and innovation, expand the freight network and advance improvements for infrastructure so that rural and urban communities all benefit.
“It would be hard to come up with a more qualified nominee than Secretary Chao for this important role,” Thune said. “Secretary Chao has repeatedly proven her willingness to roll up her sleeves to address the challenges facing our nation.”
The top Democrat on the panel, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, said he submitted questions late Sunday to Chao about the confusion at airports during the weekend stemming from President Trump’s executive order to temporarily suspend travel into the U.S. by citizens from seven countries. He said the transition team did not pass them along.
Nelson said Chao told him when they talked Monday night that she hadn’t been consulted about the order beforehand or during its implementation. Nelson said Chao would provide needed government experience to the administration.
“I think we need Secretary Chao as someone who has the experience and who has common sense and that will be in the position to offer level-headed, good experience-based advice to the government going forward,” Nelson said.
Vice President Mike Pence swore in Chao at 5:21 p.m. in his ceremonial office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. “It’s been used before,” Chao said of the Bible that her father Dr. James Chao held for the oath.
Chao was joined for the ceremony by her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and several of her sisters and their husbands and children.
“President Trump and I are appreciative that once again you have answered the call to serve America and advance the interests of the people of this country,” Pence said. “Your leadership and your experience will serve us well as the secretary of transportation, overseeing what we anticipate will be historic investment in our nation’s roads, bridges airports and above all in our future.”
Chao will be busy her first year. Trump has proposed $1 trillion during the next decade for construction of roads, bridges and airports. But McConnell has discouraged talk of a trillion-dollar stimulus.
Trump has also proposed that tax credits could spur private investment on public projects, which airline executives support for airports. Another facet of that debate is whether to increase the $4.50 cap on local fees on plane tickets for construction, which airports support and airlines opposed.
Chao noted at her confirmation that the highway trust fund spends $10 billion each year more than it collects, with 90% coming from the gas tax that lawmakers have been reluctant to raise.
“The highway trust fund is in bad shape,” Chao told senators Jan. 11. “This is a huge issue.”
Another urgent subject on her desk is the Federal Aviation Administration’s authorizing legislation, which expires Sept. 30. The debate will feature a proposal to shift air-traffic controllers to a private corporation for more predictable funding from the industry than from Congress.
Chao must also confront competition from foreign airlines.
American, Delta and United airlines have asked the department to block additional flights from state-owned airlines in the Middle East. The U.S. airlines allege that Emirates, Etihad and Qatar airlines received $50 billion in unfair subsidies during the last decade.
But the foreign airlines denied receiving subsidies. The Obama administration didn’t block flights after informal meetings with the governments of United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Airline unions have also challenged in federal appeals court the department’s approval of Norwegian Air International to serve the U.S. The unions contend the airline headquartered in Ireland is skirting labor laws, an allegation the airline strongly denies.
“I look forward to working with you on this important issue, if confirmed,” Chao told senators.
Born in Taiwan, Chao came to the U.S. with her parents when she was 8. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College and Harvard Business School. She was earlier director of the Peace Corps and CEO of United Way of America.
*Correction: January 31, 2017
This article misstated Elaine L. Chao as a former Assistant Secretary of Transportation. She was the Deputy Secretary of Transportation from 1989 – 1991.