“The work we are doing is joyful, wonderful work. It’s important work” were the words recently spoken by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
He was talking about the “work” he did during his 60 days of paid paternity leave starting in mid-August.
While some of us would not refer to caring for newly adopted twins as “work” and were surprised at such a generous leave, we would agree that these important tasks can keep you busy. However, it is disappointing that he made no mention of the “work” that he was being paid very well to do, that of running the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The DOT began operating on April 1, 1967. (There is no information available on why April Fools Day was selected.) Its mission: To ensure our nation has the safest, most efficient and modern transportation system in the world.
The DOT is led by the secretary of transportation, a position so important that it is part of the president’s cabinet. After being nominated by President Biden and confirmed by the Senate on Feb. 3, Pete Buttigieg replaced Yassmin Gramian as the secretary.
Ms. Gramian had used her bachelor’s and master’s in civil engineering, Tuck School of Management degree and experience as the head of the Pennsylvania DOT to guide the federal DOT through 2020.
Mr. Buttigieg is using his Harvard degree, Rhodes scholarship and two terms as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
When less than seven months after taking office, he took two months paid leave, the question arises: Who was left in charge of the DOT?
There were multiple choices among the DOT’s more than 52,000 employees, many of whom had considerable experience with the DOT, and among multiple executives. They included:
— Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg.
— Chief of Staff Laura Schiller
— Undersecretary of Transportation for Policy Carlos Monje.
— Senior Advisor Maurice A, Henderson II.
— Director of Public Engagement and senior adviser Lydia Tran.
During Mr. Buttigieg’s 60-day leave, which one, or group, did he delegate the responsibility for the DOT when the supply chain crisis grew?
When the DOT took control of the U.S. aviation, rails, highways, pipelines and ports, its mission became “To ensure our nation has the safest, most efficient and modern transportation system in the world.” Their responsibilities control the supply chain that is in crisis: What have DOT executives and 52,000 employees done about it or are doing about it?
This year as consumers and suppliers complained about the unavailability of many items due to back-ups at ports, the Marine Exchange of Southern California reported 161 cargo ships waiting for dock space at Los Angeles and Long Beach. Pre-pandemic, the number was 60.
The intricacies of unloading the containers that are universally used to prevent the theft, and storing them until trucks can haul them away, was driven home to me on a warm — OK, hot day — in a warehouse on a dock in the port of Long Beach when I strategized with managers of Sea Land on ways to successfully operate a union operation while being picketed.
While the secretary was on leave, there was no noticeable action from the DOT as the shortages became wider spread and contributed to the increase in the consumer price index that includes food and energy at 5.4% this year, double digit increases in food items such as chicken and fish, increases in heating oil of 42% and gasoline price increases of more than a dollar a gallon. Schools are complaining about their inability to obtain food and utensils.
President Joe Biden did announce a negotiated agreement with port management for the ports to stay open 24-7. Unfortunately, as the negotiator for the unions representing the crane operators, longshoremen and truck drivers, indicate, the ports’ management are only landlords with no authority over the operations.
Indeed, photos from this past week show the port of Long Beach not working nights, only partially open Saturday and closed Sunday, with an estimated 88 ships waiting to dock. So where are we? Is anyone negotiating with the operators?
In a little over a week from returning to work, Secretary Buttigieg will be traveling with the president, 12 cabinet members and former President Barack Obama. Not to the southern border, not to any U.S. port, but to Glasgow, Scotland, for the U.N. climate meeting.
During the meeting from Oct. 31 (no indication of the reason for selecting “trick or treat” day) until Nov. 12, they will celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Accord.
Have you heard of any accomplishments of this accord since former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. financial support promised by Mr. Obama? Neither have I. But that may change as recently a demand was made on Climate Czar Kerry for the U.S. to pay the undeveloped countries $358 billion a year. Hopefully, our extensive delegation will not feel the need to return with some agreement.
Who will be responsible for the supply chain crisis now that the president’s “deal” failed to keep the ports open? What about when it spreads to the airlines and the rails through the administration’s vaccination program? How about the shutting of pipelines that are causing a shortage in natural gas?
So far, the only solution proposed by Secretary Buttigieg was indicating that if you shop now, you should be OK, but if you shop on Christmas Eve, like he does, you may be in trouble.
Who is turning on the lights at the DOT?
Brent Zepke is an attorney, arbitrator and author who lives in Santa Barbara. He has been a faculty member at six universities and numerous professional conferences. He is the author of six books: “One Heart-Two Lives,” “Legal Guide to Human Resources,” “Business Statistics,” “Labor Law,” “Products and the Consumer” and “Law for Non-Lawyers.”