A streetcar named Big Government: Bidding Ray LaHood goodbye

Walter Olson Senior Fellow, Cato Institute
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Days after expressing his intent of “sticking around for a while” as a cabinet member in President Obama’s second term, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood now says he’s departing after all. I’ll miss him, at least as a source of good copy. Promoted as the Republican in the Obama cabinet (at least the only one left after the departure of Defense Secretary Robert Gates), the former Illinois Congressman has been a veritable fount of what-was-he-thinking proposals and anti-libertarian policy decisions over the past four years:

● LaHood’s best-known crusade, against “distracted driving,” enthusiastically built on earlier Washington initiatives muscling into traffic laws formerly decided at the state and local level. While he did back off earlier press reports that had him favoring a national ban on cellphone use in cars, even hands-free, he promoted such wacky ideas as having cops peer down into cars from overpasses to see whether drivers are paying enough attention to the road, and mandating technologies that would automatically disconnect phones in moving cars (what could go wrong?).

● Columnist George Will called LaHood “Secretary of Behavior Modification” based on attitudes like these, as cited by my Cato colleague Randal O’Toole:

In the video of LaHood’s presentation, he was asked if the administration’s “livability initiative” is really “an effort to make driving more tortuous and to coerce people out of their cars.” His answer: “It is a way to coerce people out of their cars, yeah.”


The next question was, “Some conservative groups are wary of the livable communities program, saying it’s an example of government intrusion into people’s lives. How do you respond?” His complete answer: “About everything we do around here is government intrusion in people’s lives.”

● As a model for his intended cellphone crackdown, LaHood proposed the war on drunk driving. That parallel should make us queasy: DUI law these days is increasingly geared toward coming down heavily on offenders with stringent penalties that can include mandatory jail time, seizure of vehicles and automatic license suspension (which not uncommonly can spell unemployment for first-time offenders who can only commute by driving). At the same time, LaHood complains about an “everyone does that” attitude toward in-car phone use. Draconian penalties for something that “everyone” supposedly does? Local Washington media has reported that LaHood takes the issue personally when he drives around D.C., honking his horn at drivers he sees with phones at their ear. That’ll teach ’em not to get distracted!

● Known while in Congress as friendly toward pork-barrel projects, LaHood put a Santa-like, bipartisan face on one of the leading discretionary-spending departments: The Post recounts his efforts “helping implement billions of dollars in transportation projects from the 2009 economic stimulus bill and promoting the plan to wary Republicans.” Combining his two enthusiasms, LaHood pushed a program of “nanny grants” to localities that did arouse resistance from House Republicans.

● A year into office, LaHood moved to scrap 2005 rules that sought to keep the federal government from funding the least cost-effective transit projects.

● After trial lawyers and feckless reporters ginned up an “unintended acceleration” scare against Toyota, LaHood wasn’t in a position to reverse the engineering judgment of the career technical staff at NHTSA, who concluded the scare (like earlier ones) was bogus. But he seems to have done what he could to make life hard for the foreign-owned automaker, levying heavy fines over disclosure issues and delaying the release of the technical findings exculpating the company. Some also felt that as a cabinet member of a government that had taken over competitors GM and Chrysler, LaHood was in a bit of a conflicted position as judge-and-executioner of Detroit’s envied Japanese rival.

● Early speculation on a replacement includes the name of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who’d probably leave me nostalgic for LaHood. I’d wish the departing Secretary bon voyage, but somehow it’s hard for me to associate him with happy travels.

Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A shorter version of this article appeared at the Cato Institute blog Cato at Liberty.