Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for transportation secretary, breezed through her confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Wednesday.
There were no protests or interruptions. The exchanges never got heated. And there was plenty of praise for Chao.
At the beginning of the hearing, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), a ranking member of the committee, opened his remarks by noting that his wife and Chao are the “dearest of friends” and that his wife is one of Chao’s “biggest fans.” He also complimented Chao for serving as a labor secretary during the George W. Bush administration with “grace and excellence.”
Chao’s husband Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Majority Leader, and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced her to the committee. McConnell borrowed a line from former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole when his wife Elizabeth was being confirmed for transportation secretary, “I regret I have only one wife to give for my country.” It was a play on Nathan Hale’s famous line, “I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Later in the hearing, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) commented that in his 30 years he’s never seen a nominee “that more people love than you.”
Safety and Infrastructure
During the hearing, Chao emphasized that safety is the “number one priority and responsibility.”
Infrastructure was the other major talking point. She discussed the need to “rebuild, refurbish, and revitalize America’s infrastructure, so the economy can grow and create good-paying jobs.”
In the role of transportation secretary, Chao will be one of the key figures of the Trump administration. Trump intends to heavily invest in infrastructure by building and repairing roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, railroads, ports and waterways, and pipelines. At the hearing, Chao called Trump’s vision for infrastructure “ambitious, futuristic, and comprehensive.”
“Our country’s transportation infrastructure is the underpinning of our country’s world-class economy. It is a key factor in productivity growth, providing millions of Americans with a standard of living that is the envy of the world,” Chao said in her prepared remarks, adding, “These gains are being jeopardized by aging infrastructure, growing congestion, increased fatalities on our highways, and a failure to keep pace with emerging technologies.”
She emphasized the need to “unleash the potential for private investment in our nation’s infrastructure.” This will require “a mix of practical solutions, both private and public, that will provide the greatest cost benefit to the public.” She noted that the government “doesn’t have the resources to do it all.”
As for emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles and drones, she said she wants to work with Congress to position the federal government to be a “catalyst for safe technologies, not an impediment.”
On a number of issues, she expressed wanting to work with Congress and having a national dialogue. For instance, she was asked about her views on privatizing air traffic control. She noted that this should only be done with “national consensus” and added that she’s “open to all ideas.”
‘Great Family’ and ‘True American Story’
Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) commented on how well-behaved and engaged Chao’s nieces were throughout the hearing. He also commended her for having a “great family.” Chao was joined by her father, her younger sister May, her nieces, and her brother-in-law.
Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) noted that she has a “true American story.”
Chao, 63, was born in Taiwan. The oldest of six girls, Chao immigrated to the United States on a cargo ship when she was 8 with her pregnant mom and younger sister. When she arrived in Queens, New York, she didn’t speak any English. Her parents emphasized the importance of education.
Her father, Dr. James S. C. Chao, became a shipping magnate. He serves as chairman of New York-based Foremost Group, which has interests in shipping, international trade, and finance enterprise. Her late mother Ruth Mulan Chu Chao was a philanthropist.
Chao graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a degree in economics. She then graduated from Harvard Business School. She holds 36 honorary doctorate degrees.
She served as the 24th Secretary of Labor in the George W. Bush administration from 2001 until 2009. She began her government career as a White House Fellow during the Ronald Regan administration. She then joined the Department of Transportation as deputy administrator of the Maritime Administration before serving as the chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission from 1988 to 1989. During the George H. W. Bush administration, she served as deputy secretary of transportation.
She’s led organizations in both the public, private and non-profit sectors. She’s served as CEO of the United Way of America and the Director of the Peace Corps. Before working for the government, she did stints at Bank of America and Citicorp.
If confirmed, Chao will step down from company boards where she currently holds a seat including, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (NWSA), Ingersoll-Rand (IR), Vulcan Materials (VMC), and Wells Fargo (WFC).
Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.