Roads and bridges apparently lack the headline value of Kennedys and Clintons, and Friday’s unanimous Senate confirmation of Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Transportation Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) excited little news commentary. This is a crying shame because roads and bridges—and the lucrative contracts for their construction—are the stock-in-trade of pay-to-play politics, as we saw with Gov. Blagojevich’s brazen sale of state contracts to campaign contributors. By softballing LaHood’s confirmation hearings, the Senate missed the opportunity to exact guarantees that the pay-to-play culture of Bush’s Transportation Department and LaHood’s home state of Illinois won’t make inroads into the Obama Administration, potentially undermining the new Executive Branch’s reform agenda.
Specifically, the Senate should have questioned LaHood whether he would reverse the Bush Administration’s policy of wielding the power of the Department of Transportation’s purse as a weapon against ethics reform, especially against state restrictions on pay-to-play practices. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Bush Administration’s lame-duck Transportation Department succeeded in knocking a sizeable hole in Illinois’ ban on pay-to-play deals that the state Senate had attempted to pass in the wake of the Blagojevich scandal. The Department of Transportation threatened to block federal funding for roads and bridges in Illinois unless the Illinois Senate exempted transportation projects from the pay-to-play ban, which prohibits businesses that have or seek state contracts worth more than $50,000 from donating to statewide officeholders. The Illinois Senate—just days after the state house had impeached Blagojevich for shaking down state contractors for sizeable campaign contributions—reluctantly complied with the Bush Administration’s threat, but the bill’s sponsor Rep. John Fritchey (D-Chicago) complained that watering down the ethics bill was “somewhat of a bitter pill” to swallow. In New Jersey in 2004, the Federal Highway Administration had used a similar threat to withhold state highway funding in order to weaken a state executive order limiting the size of campaign contributions from government contractors to state candidates.
The Department of Transportation’s asserted justification for opposing state pay-to-play reform efforts is that banning pay-to-play practices might potentially prevent some businesses from bidding, and that such a restriction on competitive bidding might potentially drive up the cost of projects. This supposed “cost-saving” justification is absurd—multiple defense contracting scandals have only emphasized that when government contracts are awarded through political favoritism and pay-to-play dealmaking, public funds are squandered, not saved. If businesses wish to compete for lucrative state contracts, let them compete based on their own merits, not on their enrichment of a particular state official’s campaign war chest.
LaHood’s past record on the House Appropriations Committee does not inspire confidence that he is the man to lead DOT in a new direction. As the Washington Post has reported, LaHood—one of the House’s top ten percent of earmark winners—directed at least $9 million in federal funds to his own campaign contributors last year, including an award of almost $7.8 million to a single company that had donated more than $190,000 to his campaign. Furthermore, LaHood has been criticized for his close relationship to William F. Cellini, Jr., who is under indictment in the federal pay-to-play investigation that toppled Gov. Blagojevich.
As Transportation Secretary, LaHood will oversee the use of hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending, including a large part of President Obama’s stimulus package, auto industry bailout, and investment in green technologies, and LaHood has stated that “One of my first tasks if confirmed will be to manage the open and effective use of those funds.” In order to show himself to be a worthy guardian of this public trust, LaHood should make it clear that his Transportation Department will not tolerate pay-to-play practices, nor will the Department continue to derail the efforts of individual states to reform their own state governments.