Former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao was nominated on Tuesday by President-elect Donald Trump to head the Department of Transportation.
Chao ran the Labor Department under the George W. Bush administration. She met with the president-elect at Trump Tower last week to discuss labor and transportation policy, according to Trump’s transition team.
Top Senate Democrats signaled that Chao may not face much of a fight to get confirmed, with incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) congratulating her earlier on Tuesday for her exepcted nomination and praising her for her “long history of service to our country.”
“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. “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.”
The wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Chao is the first Asian-American woman to hold a Cabinet-level position. She also served as deputy secretary of transportation under President George H.W. Bush. Chao was also a member of Trump’s Asian Pacific American Advisory Council during the campaign.
Earlier on Tuesday, McConnell declined to comment at length on his wife’s impending nomination when asked about it by reporters, noting only that she’s an “outstanding choice” and that he would not be recusing himself from voting to confirm Chao.
But once her nomination became official on Tuesday evening, McConnell issued a statement saying “I am so proud of Elaine as she continues her accomplished career in public service. I am confident she will do an outstanding job for the nation in this new and important role.”
When she came before the Senate in 2001 as the Labor secretary-designate for George W. Bush, Chao was quickly approved on a voice vote.
Although Chao worked for the relatively moderate Bush administration, she’s got serious conservative bona fides. During her eight-year tenture at the Labor Department, for example, she drew fire from labor unions and liberals for doing too little to enforce existing laws on wages, overtime and workplace safety. And federal employees threw a “good riddance” party when she left.
“She was a terrible Labor Secretary,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “She cut the enforcement budgets and … OSHA protections, thereby leaving workers less safe and more likely to be cheated on their wages.”
And she increased financial disclosure requirements for unions, touting the rules as a win for workers who she said were harmed by corrupt union officials.
Her most significant accomplishment was a 2004 update to the rules governing overtime. Chao boosted the salary threshold under which virtually all workers were guaranteed time-and-a-half pay to $23,660, up from $13,000. But she also made it more difficult for workers who earned above that threshold to receive time-and-a-half overtime pay, prompting howls of outrage from congressional Democrats.
Hal Coxson, a shareholder at the management-side law firm Ogletree Deakins, thought Secretary Chao distinguished herself. “The standard initiatives that came out of the Labor Department … were much less anti-business than they had been previously,” he said of her tenure — a sentiment that could mesh well with the seemingly pro-business administration Trump is assembling.