Former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao is Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Transportation, and in a Senate confirmation hearing Thursday she indicated that the United States Merchant Marine Academy would be a top priority – a welcome focus on maritime concerns from a cabinet-level appointee.
Chao is no stranger to maritime policy: she served as deputy maritime administrator in the Reagan administration, as chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission from 1988-89 and as deputary secretary of transportation from 1989-91. With years of experience in Washington and good relationships on both sides of the aisle, Chao may be among Trump's least controversial nominees, and she is widely expected to win Senate confirmation without difficulty.
The hearing’s brief discussion of USMMA focused on recent events. The academy receives a small fraction of DOT's sprawling $70 billion budget, but over the past year it has attracted top-level attention due a persistent problem with sexual assault and sexual harassment. The outgoing Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, suspended the academy's Sea Year training program for the second half of 2016 over allegations of improper behavior, prompting an outcry from alumni, students and parents.
In questioning, Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) encouraged Chao to ensure the continuation of Sea Year, to make certain that Kings Point retains its accreditation as an institution of higher education, and to use input from the school's alumni.
"I have been to Kings Point when I was deputy maritime administrator and I know the facility well," Chao responded. "This is a huge issue and I can assure you that if confirmed, this will be the first issue that I take up at MARAD."
Chao also promised to support improvements to maritime infrastructure, and said that the federal government should work as an enabler of new transportation technologies – autonomous vehicles and drones – and should not impede private-sector efforts to develop these systems.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.