Pete Buttigieg has a bridge to sell youMarch 29, 2021
As he took over a sprawling department with tens of thousands of workers and a $90 billion budget, Pete Buttigieg was having a fairly unusual problem: He couldn’t locate the Department of Transportation’s vaunted library.
Indeed, the department, through its years, has built up a library. And Buttigieg wanted to find it, only … it was nowhere to be found.
“The Trump people, being Luddites, did something with the library,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who had gotten together with Buttigieg last weekend. “And nobody’s quite sure where it went.”
After asking aides about it, Buttigieg and his team discovered that much of the department’s trove of research materials was digitized and that they, indeed, had access to them. Secretary Pete found the books and other documents he needed. His research continued. His transition to Washington progressed.
Buttigieg may be the youngest of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet secretaries and the one with the most on-the-job learning to do. But he also comes with the most prominent reputation — a small-town mayor with big ideas and even bigger ambitions; the type of person who plunges so deep into new subjects that he might spend a casual evening sifting through a digital library on transportation and actually enjoy it.
With the White House’s massive infrastructure bill set for its formal unveiling, he and his boss are looking to turn that reputation into a political asset. They want to make him one of the package’s chief pitchmen.
In recent weeks, Buttigieg has held scores of meetings with transportation, business and labor groups on infrastructure, which will take up a major part of the upcoming $3 trillion “Build Back Better” plan. Central to his approach is a Capitol Hill tour that’s part listening session, part charm offensive. It has included meeting with those Democrats helping craft the legislation and those Republicans who he and Biden hope will have a say in the process. Buttigieg, while still in the early stages, has found friendly responses on both sides.
In interviews, more than a dozen people who have spoken with him or been read-in on the conversations — including lawmakers and their aides, and transportation industry groups, environmental outfits and labor organizers — described a capable and engaged emissary for Biden. While many say he’s living up to his reputation as an affable policy wonk, others say they still came away unclear about how much policy influence he will ultimately wield.
Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, a high-ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, spoke by phone with Buttigieg. The congressman conceded that when the former mayor took over the department, his expectations were not especially high.
“I’ll be really candid with you: My initial impression when they announced the appointment was here we go, a guy who has no knowledge, background or understanding of infrastructure,” Graves said. “But I do think he’s been able to demonstrate some proficiency, and clearly has some experience in the department’s portfolio. I’m trying to keep an open mind.”
The shift to Buttigieg from his predecessor, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, has been among the more jarring transitions of any of the Cabinet posts this year. Chao was reclusive, and a classic Washington insider, having served in prior cabinets and with a powerful husband holding the title of Senate majority leader.
This is Buttigieg’s first D.C. job. And instead of being a homebody, he is seemingly everywhere. He’s continued his torrid pace of television appearances that began during his 2020 presidential campaign and into his role as a top Biden campaign surrogate. And in Washington, where Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, have relocated to an apartment on Capitol Hill after selling their home in South Bend, Ind., the two have been spotted alone or joined by other dignitaries on strolls through their new neighborhood.
Buttigieg was seen with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and their dogs, in what was described as a chance run-in. He was noticed going for a walk with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a one-time debate sparring partner, as part of a scheduled get-together so the two could continue what was described as frequent talks about improving infrastructure.
“Secretary Buttigieg’s experience in local government and ability to work across the aisle are key assets,” Klobuchar said, pointing to their desire to expand access to broadband and fixing roads and bridges.
Buttigieg bought a bicycle from a man at a Petworth Pizza Hut, and Chasten lights up social media and local news sites every time he’s recognized walking the couple’s dogs. Earlier, Chasten had met with the second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, at the Lincoln Park shop Wine and Butter on Capitol Hill.
But the primary focus for the new DOT chief has not been picking up coffee, or after his dog. It’s moving the president’s agenda. And on this front, the stakes are quite high. Democrats have just one more chance this year to pass a bill through reconciliation (the budget process that requires only 51 Senate votes).
On Sunday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki indicated that the effort would begin as two distinct proposals — the first focused on the kind of physical infrastructure that Buttigieg has been pushing, and the second on other priorities such as health and child care. “We’ll work with the Senate and House to see how it should move forward,” she said on Fox News Sunday, in a nod to the legislative process.
Buttigieg maintains the admiration of Biden and the implicit trust of his White House, and aides say his polished track record with doing media and the ease with which he moves around elected officials make him a unique talent they can harness. Administration officials anticipate he will be a valuable asset on the Hill, but also an effective surrogate with governors and mayors whose support they’ll need, given his own experiences in local government.
Officials stressed that Buttigieg is actively engaging in the discussions around infrastructure. Biden and the White House asked Buttigieg to play a leading role in developing their recovery agenda and building public support for the president’s American Rescue Plan. “The secretary’s done an admirable job in that work and in communicating it to the American people,” one of the officials said.
To do that, Buttigieg has kept up his usual dizzying run of TV and media appearances, putting up numbers that lap many of his counterparts in the administration.
Since his confirmation, Buttigieg also has met with a handful of Republican senators who will be key to passing the upcoming infrastructure bill by regular order. In an introductory sitdown with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of the most moderate members of the Senate, she spent much of the time explaining the peculiarities of the transportation system in Alaska, where 80 percent of communities are not accessible by road. Murkowski urged him to build bipartisan consensus during negotiations on the infrastructure package, an aide said.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who until recently chaired the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, spoke with Buttigieg by phone about surface transportation legislation, a conversation his aides described as “productive.” Barrasso touted the reauthorization that passed the committee unanimously under his watch, and which committee Democrats now say they’re using as a starting point for their own bill, which is expected to go further on climate mitigation and so-called resiliency policies.
Buttigieg spoke with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.)
Whether Biden and Democrats on the Hill can secure Republican votes for the major package, which is expected to cost around $1 trillion and include money to update the country’s failing infrastructure and transportation network, won’t be up to Buttigieg alone. But his scores of meetings with lawmakers, industry groups, civil rights and environmental organizations, are setting the tone for how Biden approaches the negotiations after Democrats on their own forged ahead with their recently signed $1.9 trillion rescue plan.
And early indications are that he’s had some nominal success. Graves, in an interview, said the fact that Buttigeig’s team has been reaching out and suggesting calls is “indicative of at least some desire to be bipartisan.”
“I think he’s inherently, by nature, bipartisan. Well-liked,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of D.C., a high-ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, said shortly after finishing a meeting with the new Cabinet secretary. “He understands fully where the Republicans are and what we’ll have to do to get something through.”
Buttigieg, who has met with several other Democrats in the House and Senate, has largely avoided talking about process, though at a hearing Thursday he reiterated that his talks with lawmakers on both sides affirmed for him that the infrastructure proposal must have “at least a partial funding source,” adding, “I know that is a challenging conversation.”
For the most part, his higher-level assessments of the opportunity Congress has to pass large-scale transportation legislation have been exceedingly upbeat, particularly after the issue became a running punchline during the Trump administration. While he’s acknowledged the mass repair of roads and bridges can be viewed as “unglamourous,” he said other elements of the policies around transportation could be considered “fairly sexy,” pitching now as a once-in-a-generation chance to act.
Mitch Daniels, the former Republican governor of Indiana whose time in office briefly overlapped with Buttigieg’s, urged him and the Biden administration to “show a little imagination” for funding the package without being heavily reliant on tax hikes.
Daniels said he believes Buttigieg, whom he called “bright, collegial and very smart,” could also play a role in reducing some of the regulatory roadblocks that typically stall major projects and contribute to their comparatively high costs.
“I think, intellectually, he understands them all,” Daniels said. “He’s ideally suited, provided he’s not too constrained by partisan theology around it. Whether he’d be permitted to do any of them, I don’t know.”
On the Hill, he’s demonstrated a desire to dive into the policy weeds. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, has, on several occasions, noted to staff that Buttigieg has already done a much better job of engaging with Congress than his predecessor, Chao.
In the talks with lawmakers, Buttigieg expressed interest in advances to decarbonize the production of concrete and potentially move it to being “carbon negative.” He’s demonstrated a familiarity with issues involving wastewater. And he knows about “Complete Streets,” which he put in place as the mayor of South Bend.
“He had some good basic knowledge,” said DeFazio, who arrived in Congress as a former county commissioner representing an area the size of Connecticut. “He came from a city [that] had even more issues. He starts with a good base.”