Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg joined President Biden and other officials during the White House signing ceremony for the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
- Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg enjoyed his best political year in 2021.
- Experts say 2022 will be harder for Buttigieg to navigate as he implements the infrastructure law.
- If Republicans win back the House, he could get buried in document requests and scandals.
When he visited the White House in November for the signing of the bipartisan infrastructure law on the South Lawn, former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood huddled with the current occupant of his old Cabinet agency.
But amid the celebratory atmosphere and some 800 guests, LaHood had advice—and a warning—for Pete Buttigieg that laid bare the stakes of this political moment for the former 2020 presidential contender.
“Pete, you got to be the decider,” LaHood told him, referencing the hundreds of billions of dollars in grant money that Buttigieg will soon be delivering around the country for big projects like roads, bridges, ports, and tunnels. “Take all the recommendations you want, but in the end, you have to make the decision on every one of these grant programs and projects, because if they’re going to be successful, President Biden will get the credit. If they’re not successful, you’re going to get the criticism.”
History is replete with examples of Cabinet officials getting caught in the bureaucratic muck and seeing their career paths go haywire because of it: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, spent much of her 2016 presidential campaign answering for her time in the Obama administration. That’s why LaHood was talking to Buttigieg and suggesting he assemble a task force within his department of political and career staffers, as well as an infrastructure coordinator, that can be his eyes and ears for any potential obstacles.
Buttigieg knows he’ll be held to a high standard, and appears to have taken the advice to heart. Even before the law’s passage, he held an internal DOT town hall focusing on implementation. In the weeks following, he would act on most if not all of LaHood’s suggestions, setting up a DOT working group while partnering with another former mayor—Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans—who is serving as Biden’s senior adviser and infrastructure coordinator. In the post, the White House said, Landrieu would “oversee the most significant and comprehensive investments in American infrastructure in generations.” (Landrieu and Buttigieg have been allies; the fellow former mayor endorsed Buttigieg’s unsuccessful 2017 bid to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee; the White House declined to make Landrieu available for an interview.)
But Buttigieg is also well aware of the political stakes he’s facing at the moment.
“He knows he’s very vulnerable over the next year,” a person close to Buttigieg told Insider.
Buttigieg got off to a fast start in 2021
By almost any measure, 2021 was a banner year for Buttigieg.
In February, Biden’s former 2020 Democratic primary rival had become the first openly gay Cabinet secretary to be Senate-confirmed. At the apogee of his still-young political career, Buttigieg, who turns 40 on January 19, has ensconced himself as one of the most visible members of the administration, racking up appearances on cable news, Sunday shows, and even late-night television. He’s also saturating local media markets through his travels to red states and blue states.
He’s built bipartisan relationships with members of Congress via some 300 calls to secure the bipartisan infrastructure law’s passage, according to his office. He’s jet-setted to Glasgow for COP26, the United Nations climate summit, posing with former President Barack Obama. Buttigieg even enjoyed the global release of an Amazon documentary chronicling his 2020 presidential campaign. And the supply chain crisis some expected to delay Christmas gifts never quite materialized.
Buttigieg in mid-December toured the Georgia Ports Authority’s Garden City Terminal in Savannah, Georgia. The supply chain crisis has largely not prevented Christmas gifts from arriving on time, though Buttigieg has said this is not a “mission accomplished” moment.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Even at the mercy of the most partisan members of the GOP, Buttigieg’s Midwestern demeanor and McKinsey-honed competency haven’t attracted the kind of heat-seeking GOP missiles elicited by other Cabinet secretaries. In October, a Punchbowl News analysis showed that only one Congressional Republican had called for his resignation, fewer than any other Biden Cabinet member.
However rosy 2021 proved to be for Buttigieg, 2022 could prove a bumpier road for the Rhodes Scholar, as his day job turns from selling the infrastructure bill to steering its implementation.
With $550 billion in new infrastructure spending about to go out the door, Buttigieg faces a series of potential political pitfalls in the coming months—including learning how to say “no” to projects that don’t make the cut, according to experts in both congressional oversight and transportation policy. In many ways, Buttigieg’s political career is just beginning. But the coming years could test his mettle more than the crucible of a 2020 presidential campaign ever did.
Buttigieg’s political exposure
Following the infrastructure law’s passage, Buttigieg finds himself as a possible target of both the right and the left.
Democrats—particularly those in the party’s progressive wing—may quibble with some of Buttigieg’s moves, said Beth Osborne, a former Obama-era DOT hand and one of Buttigieg’s former presidential campaign advisers.
She told Insider she’s disappointed in the infrastructure legislation that finally passed, based on its delivered-versus-promised impact on climate change and Black citizens of historically divided communities.
“He does have a very hard job because he’s made promises,” said Osborne, director of Transportation for America, an advocacy group for more equitable transportation policies, who last spoke with Buttigieg by phone in February after his Senate confirmation. (Through a round of grants issued to projects to two dozen states in June, Buttigieg’s DOT considered climate change and racial equity in their analysis of each project’s merit).
Osborne added: “I think he needs to be careful about the promises he’s making when he’s dependent on people who might not have the same priorities he has.”
That’s because much of the law’s provisions around reconnecting communities historically divided by highways or railways allow states discretion on how to spend it — something not likely to happen in red America. Take remarks by Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential presidential candidate in 2024, for instance.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Arizona Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema listen during a November roundtable about infrastructure and supply chain problems at Mesa Community College in Mesa, Arizona.
AP Photo/Jonathan J. Cooper
In November, DeSantis derided Buttigieg’s talk of using infrastructure to help end systemic racism. “I heard some stuff, some weird stuff from the Secretary of Transportation trying to make this about social issues,” DeSantis said. “To me, a road’s a road.”
Ahead of 2024, rejecting such moves from Buttigieg’s DOT appears poised to become a litmus test for any GOP presidential candidates who serve now as governors, as accepting Medicare expansion did for 2016 Republicans.
GOP oversight coming soon?
Buttigieg also needs to be mindful of Capitol Hill and the prospect that Republicans could be wielding subpoena power and the ability to drive the investigative agenda should they win back control of the House or Senate in November.
Recent history suggests he has reason to be concerned. Several experts pointed to the Obama-era Solyndra scandal, which saw the FBI launch a criminal investigation of the California manufacturer of solar cells that had connections to an Obama donor.
The company filed for bankruptcy in 2011 despite receiving $528 million in government-backed loan guarantees via the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. While its downfall was the byproduct of rapidly-changing global market conditions for renewable energy products, Solyndra nonetheless exposed the previous Democratic administration to oversight-hungry Republicans who held countless hearings aimed at embarrassing the president and some of his most prominent Cabinet members.
If Republicans take back the House in November, they are likely to ramp up oversight on Buttigieg much the same way their predecessors did with Obama and Solyndra. In a statement to Insider, House Oversight Committee ranking member James Comer said Republicans plan to keep close watch over the infrastructure law’s implementation, even as they’re in the minority.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is also telegraphing that GOPers will take a tougher approach on oversight should they win the majority, having already sent the Biden administration preservation requests for documents related to the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal.
Such actions remain little more than talking points unless House Republicans control the chamber and have subpoena power. A DOT spokesperson said the agency isn’t tracking any preservation notices—legal requests to keep documents that may later lead to oversight investigations—at this time.
“It is unclear how these taxpayer dollars will be used, and as we have seen in the past with debacles like Solyndra, there is plenty of room for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement,” Comer told Insider.
Solyndra was written off in many quarters at the time as a manufactured scandal. But it still drew blood, putting the Obama White House on the defensive and creating a literal campaign backdrop for Mitt Romney and Republicans to use in their ultimately unsuccessful bid to stop Obama’s second term.
Most relevant for Buttigieg, Solyndra also tarnished the reputation of Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was one of the celebrity members of the Democratic president’s Cabinet as the secretary of energy. In the same way the 2009 Recovery Act put Chu’s Energy Department at the center of its plans to overhaul the economy, more than half of the bipartisan infrastructure law falls under the aegis of DOT.
And Democratic and Republican veterans of political battles around the implementation of Obama’s Recovery Act—the most analogous cash infusion into public projects to the infrastructure law—paint a picture of a perilous path ahead for Buttigieg, particularly if Republicans take back the House amid the 2022 midterm elections.
“He basically has now until the fall campaign season to go out there and get the nice and easy press,” a veteran of the Obama administration’s efforts to promote and defend the Recovery Act told Insider. “And then the waters are going to get a lot rougher.”
Mitt Romney in May 2012 held a news conference outside the shuttered Solyndra solar power company’s manufacturing facility in Fremont, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
DOT staffing up by the hundreds
There’s a big incentive for GOP lawmakers to score political points at Buttigieg’s expense and try to sully his future political prospects in the long term, said Kurt Bardella, who handled press for Rep. Darrell Issa when he chaired the House Oversight Committee and led one of two big GOP congressional investigations into Solyndra.
To prepare, Buttigieg seems to have followed LaHood’s advice down to the letter. The administration and the DOT have been staffing up.
Working with Landrieu will be Katie Thomson, Amazon’s former vice president and associate general counsel for worldwide transportation and sustainability. In the new year, she will return to DOT as director of the bipartisan infrastructure law implementation.
“She understands transportation. She understands people,” said a DOT veteran who worked with her during the Obama administration when she served as the department’s general counsel under LaHood. A DOT spokesperson told Insider there are plans to hire hundreds of additional staffers to implement the law.
According to the DOT spokesperson, Buttigieg also joins weekly calls with Landrieu and his Infrastructure Implementation Task Force. Buttigieg recently invited Landrieu to join a DOT staff call to discuss next steps and take questions from political appointee staff about implementation, the spokesperson said. And the secretary established an internal working group that meets weekly.
Ultimately, Buttigieg is the one who will become the decider on infrastructure projects nationwide. And that puts Republicans in position to comb through every aspect of the various projects’ backgrounds for threads on which to pull and cause problems for one of the most well known members of the Biden Cabinet.
“The Republican effort will be merciless and repetitive because they see him as a threat,” Bardella said. “They see him as someone that they need to attack and that puts some dents in his armor because they see him as a potential and future adversary. It will be a hyper-political and partisan effort, and it will be a relentless smear campaign designed to try to injure the political future of the secretary.”
The Democratic strategist who helped guide the Obama administration through Solyndra said it’s almost impossible for Buttigieg and his team to prepare for the storm that’s coming.
Every single day for a year-and-a-half, a reporter from a Washington newspaper would email him at 3:30 p.m. with a new trove of documents among millions selectively released by the Republican Solyndra investigators, he recalled. The reporter wanted a reaction for a story that was going to run by 4:30 p.m, acknowledging that he still has “nightmares about the daily routine.”
“I don’t know that he or the people around him are really prepared for that level of oversight or scrutiny,” the Obama veteran of Solyndra said. “That’s not even a knock on him. There’s no way you could be, having lived through it.”
What’s more, the Democratic strategist said, Landrieu may not fully insulate Buttigieg from all the blowback in an investigation.
“What’s gonna end up happening is that you’re going to have a big push to spend the money,” he said. “And then at that point, once the money is out the door, Mitch Landrieu’s portfolio will either evolve or move, or he’ll be less front and center. The folks who are gonna be left behind are the heads of the agencies that are implementing and overseeing these grants. So when they find the inevitable scandal, because there will be one—manufactured or not— Mitch will probably be gone. It will be on Pete or whichever agency is in the crossfire, but most likely Transportation.”