Mineta an Unlikely Cabinet Survivor

Posted January 3, 2005 at 6:44pm

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, the only Democrat in President Bush’s Cabinet, was until recently considered one of the most likely senior Bush appointees to depart after the 2004 election.

Privately — though with no special inside knowledge — officials in industry and even the administration had been preparing themselves for Mineta’s “likely” departure for months before the November election.

These officials apparently assumed that Mineta would want to rest after a term in which he underwent a hip replacement and also had major surgery to deal with chronic back pain.

But now, after a wide-ranging Cabinet shakeup in which the president tapped several close confidants to take the reins of major agencies, the former Democratic House Member finds himself an unlikely survivor.

Mineta spokesman Robert Johnson said that Mineta “didn’t think twice” about staying at the department, adding that Bush personally asked him to stay in December. “Transportation is in his genes,” Johnson said. “He is dedicated to this job and to this president.”

The White House declined to elaborate on why Mineta made the cut when many higher-profile appointees did not.

“He obviously has been a great member of the president’s Cabinet, especially after 9/11,” said White House spokeswoman Clare Buchan. Among other things, the 2001 terrorist attacks forced Mineta and his department to assemble a new aviation-security framework almost overnight.

Mineta also helped — indirectly, but notably — the Bush re-election campaign. While eschewing an overtly political role, Mineta made repeated trips to battleground states in 2004 to give assurances that local projects would be protected when the White House managed to pass a highway bill. The bill had been blocked by the White House in a showdown with Congress over spending.

Indeed, Congressional leadership sources and other transportation insiders point to the unfinished highway bill as a major reason for the continuation of Mineta’s tenure. They note that Mineta is trusted by Members from both parties — a dynamic that could be critical to the negotiations ahead.

“We think the knowledge base over [at the Transportation Department] will be critical in the months ahead to getting a bill,” said Matthew Jeanneret, a spokesman for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a leading trade group.

Jeanneret suggested that Mineta has played a central role in the development of transportation policy for the administration. “A lot of these provisions in the House and Senate bills originated with the administration,” he said.

The need to implement major ongoing projects also may help explain why Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao were kept in place for a second term. Rumsfeld is heading up the Pentagon at a time of war, while Chao is responsible for implementing new and controversial overtime rules.

The only other original Bush Cabinet appointee still serving in their original post is Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson was also kept for a second term, but he had only served about a year in the position before Bush’s re-election.

To some observers, Mineta did have a somewhat rocky four years. Faced with health issues that at times limited his activities, the one-time chairman of what was then known as the House Public Works and Transportation Committee appeared only rarely in his former stomping grounds, even though he had been expected to be a key emissary for the administration.

At times, some critics even questioned his relevance, especially when the White House took over negotiations with Congress on the highway bill last year.

Yet even if Mineta was sighted only sporadically in the halls of Congress, he retained warm ties to key Members.

“I’m very pleased to see him stay,” especially in light of ongoing negotiations over the highway bill, said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), a senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “He’s one of the most knowledgeable people in the country about transportation policy.”

Mineta has also gotten high marks from critical players in transportation policy.

Fred McLuckie, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ top administration lobbyist, described his union’s relationship with Mineta to be “very strong,” although he points out that, “obviously, some policy decisions have not been completely to our liking.”

McLuckie was alluding primarily to the issue of whether Mexican trucks should be allowed to haul loads in the United States — a major point of contention in U.S.-Mexico relations. The Teamsters contend that weaker environmental and safety regulations across the border make those trucks unsuitable for U.S. roads and highways and provide unfair competition. The administration has adopted a more lenient approach toward Mexican trucks, in part to ensure the continuing development of commercial ties along the border.

Mineta’s strongest criticism has come in areas where transportation policy intersects with the war on terror.

Mineta, who is of Japanese descent, spent time in an internment camp during World War II and has cited that experience in steadfastly opposing the use of racial or ethnic profiling at airports.

This viewpoint has set him directly at odds with other security planners in the administration who argue that federal officials know which groups are likeliest to be involved in terror plotting and ought to be able to screen them more closely.

Johnson, Mineta’s spokesman, counters the critics by arguing that the secretary should be credited with establishing a security system that “didn’t exist” before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He also pointed to closer-to-home victories, including statistics showing the lowest fatality rate for motor vehicles, the highest rate of seatbelt usage by Americans and the lowest rail fatality rates ever.

Johnson added that the secretary has laid out an ambitious agenda for the second term. It will include not just a final highway package but also efforts to reform Amtrak, to instill greater efficiency at U.S. ports and to ease aviation congestion. Johnson also noted that parts of the newly enacted intelligence overhaul will require the department to make significant changes.

Historically, Cabinet secretaries do not often stay on beyond one presidential term. One recent anomaly was the Clinton administration, which had four Cabinet members serve essentially the entire eight years: Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Attorney General Janet Reno, Education Secretary Richard Riley and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.

Not only have presidents traditionally sought to shake things up for their second term, but the jobs themselves almost always carry the threat of physical and mental exhaustion.

“The secretary was sidelined for a while,” Johnson acknowledged. “But if you know this guy as well as some people do, you would know that was just one more obstacle to overcome.”