Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is facing tough questions about how he handles crises facing his department. The latest crisis, the grounding of every plane in America for the first since 9/11/01, shines a light on what exactly it is that Buttigieg does on the job.
Let’s be honest. Buttigieg failed up into his current position. He was a failed mayor of a small city in the Midwest, unable to keep the potholes filled. From there he ran for president and failed to secure his party’s nomination. As a consolation prize for endorsing Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, he was nominated as Secretary of Transportation. He wasn’t qualified for the job but he checked an important identity box for Democrats and Biden owed him after his endorsement, so Pete got the job.
So, what exactly are Buttigieg’s qualifications to run the Department of Transportation? Luckily, writer Adam Wren, who did an extensive profile of Buttigieg in 2018, has the answer:
Fun fact: One of @PeteButtigieg‘s favorite board games is Ticket to Ride, a game that involves collecting trains and claiming rail routes through states across the U.S.
— Adam Wren (@adamwren) December 15, 2020
He likes trains.
Buttigieg has taken an unusual approach to trying to convince Americans that he’s doing his job. There was the early days of the administration when he was caught on video piling out of a big ole SUV and unloading his bike out of the back of the vehicle to peddle a short distance to work. He wanted to show his woke support for clean energy, I suppose. He was in Portugal on a family vacation in the tense final days of the railroad strike negotiations. He actually donned a jacket and tie and made a video as though he was in Washington at the time, though he was still in Portugal. He was most acutely missing, though, during the height of the supply chain slowdown when all those shipping containers were stacked up offshore on the West Coast, in a massive gridlock situation. Did he come back early from his very generous government leave when he and his husband adopted their twin children? Nope.
Now, as questions about his performance in office are asked, Pete rather defensively declares that everyone knows that in a job such as his, he must be available 24/7. You’d think everyone would know that. But does Pete? It turns out that it looks like Pete was turning down requests for calls and zoom meetings with both Democrat and Republican lawmakers while he was home with his new little family. He was, in fact, not available 24/7. On Thursday, government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) released information showing that inconvenient truth.
Not only was Pete not available when his assistance was needed, he failed to issue a formal delegation of authority, causing some chaos as important decisions still needed to be made during his leave. Hmm. So, who was in charge when Pete was out of the office? That seems like an important question.
As he told CNN’s Jake Tapper in October, Pete was available at any time, even if it meant taking phone calls in the hospital. PPT provided a quote from the interview in its press release.
Now, look, even though I have been on paternity leave . . . when you take a job like mine, you understand and accept that you’re going to have to be available 24/7, depending on what’s going on, and you’re going to have to engage.
And I did, even if that meant taking a phone call or making a decision from a hospital room. [emphasis added]
For example, PPT has obtained documents via a FOIA lawsuit that show Pete denied a request by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) for a phone call during his paternity leave.
However, documents obtained by PPT in a FOIA lawsuit with DOT tell a much different story. Contrary to the Secretary’s explicit claims about taking phone calls, DOT rebuffed a request by Senator Chuck Grassley for a phone conversation with the Secretary during his paternity leave. While the supply chain crisis was raging, the Senator sought to discuss resolution of an issue involving a massive, $1.2 billion bridge project that was nearing completion.
Secretary Buttigieg’s office spurned the Senator’s appeal for a call by stating, “Unfortunately, the Secretary is currently on leave due to the birth of his twins,” and suggesting “perhaps we can aim for a meeting when the Secretary returns from his leave.” [emphasis added] Records show the Secretary had been on leave for nearly six weeks at this point. No prospective dates or times were offered, however, and Secretary Buttigieg’s calendars reveal that he did not return from his paternity leave until weeks after Senator Grassley’s request.
About that lack of formal delegation of Secretary of Transportation’s duties while he was on leave…
The lack of a formal delegation of the Secretary’s authority also appeared to cause some havoc. Although the Department regulations assign authority to the Deputy Secretary to take some actions, they leave authority for other tasks and responsibilities unclear. As a result, the Secretary’s leave evidently created turmoil within the Department. In one incident about a week after his leave began, attorneys across the Department were forced to engage in a frantic conversation beginning on a Friday night and continuing through that weekend to resolve an issue of delegation of authority around a large loan program. Another heavily redacted conversation showed DOT attorneys were forced to determine the status of authority within the Department to make legally mandated reports to Congress.
Instead of handling the chaos caused by the supply chain debacle, Buttigieg was creating more chaos in his own department.
The Director of PPT, Michael Chamberlain, released a statement:
“As a father myself, I understand that being a parent is the most important job in the world,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “But the Secretary of Transportation’s obligations to the American public are 24/7, as Secretary Buttigieg has admitted. It appears as though, during his paternity leave, he was not always available when called upon and did not have some necessary contingencies in place to ensure the continuity of operations at DOT. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that so many crises involving the Department, from the supply chain breakdown to the FAA system outage that grounded flights all over the country, have occurred on his watch.”
Mayor Pete has some explaining to do. With failure after failure to meet the number of crises facing this administration, why is Buttigieg not being held accountable? Joe Biden should be less concerned about checking identity boxes and more concerned about finding qualified, talented people to fill his cabinet.