President Joe Biden’s cabinet choices most likely to affect the construction industry are moving quickly into place. His pick for transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, is already on the job, and nominees for federal labor, energy, environmental and commerce agencies appear primed for approval. Full Senate confirmation could come by month’s end.
Candidates have had to defend Biden’s climate-change strategy unveiled last month and will have to help the administration as it gears up to win approval for a $1.9-trillion stimulus plan that passed the Senate on party lines Feb. 5. Buttigieg, confirmed Feb. 2 by the Senate on an 86-13 vote, is expected to have a prominent role in helping to push the recovery plan.
All 13 of the DOT chief’s “no” votes were Republicans. But Buttigieg was approved by 36 GOP senators, a positive sign for the administration’s legislative initiatives in transportation and other sectors. “It’s an encouraging start,” says Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Cos. senior vice president for advocacy.
In addition to the massive lift with the coronavirus aid package, Buttigieg also will have to deal with a vital surface transportation reauthorization expiring on Sept. 30 and a Highway Trust Fund that faces insolvency, says Sean O’Neill, Portland Cement Association senior vice president for government affairs.
Buttigieg lacks DOT and Capitol Hill experience, but his assembled team “brings deep knowledge of both policy and process that will pay dividends in crafting a visionary and robust infrastructure plan,” said Ray LaHood, the first Obama-era DOT Transportation Secretary.
Biden’s nominee for DOT deputy secretary, for example, is Polly Trottenberg, former commissioner of the New York City DOT for seven years and Obama’s U.S. DOT undersecretary for policy. She also was an aide to majority leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Pro-Union Labor Choice
In his Feb. 4 appearance before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Marty Walsh, Boston mayor and labor secretary nominee, hewed closely to Biden’s views on a range of labor issues, including raising the minimum wage and a new emergency workplace safety standard related to the pandemic.
A long-time laborers’ union member and former building trades council president in Boston, Walsh recounted to senators how his father’s joining the laborers’ union was his family’s “way into the middle class.”
Shortly after the hearing began, Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) announced she would reintroduce the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO, Act. It calls for a variety of union-backed changes in federal labor law, including ending the prohibition against secondary boycott. Biden supports the bill, and so does Walsh.
In his hearing, Walsh said the PRO Act “is one step towards helping people to organize freely.” He added, “I do believe in the right of organizing. I do believe in the right of people being able to join the union if they want to join the union.”
Industry positions are split deeply on the legislation. It has the strong backing of the building trades but faces fierce opposition from the Associated Builders & Contractors and the Associated General Contractors of America.
“We believe in the right for employees to choose a union—and not to join a union,” Michael Bellaman, ABC president and CEO, said in an interview. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) blasted the PRO Act, saying that it would be a major blow to the 27 “right to work” states, such as his own, and also said it would be “devastating for the economic future of the nation.”
Regarding the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Walsh said the administration and Congress should aim to have OSHA be “an agency that is there to help workers and to help employers—and not be put in the middle of both.”
Bellaman added, “The guy’s from the [construction] industry. So he knows the industry, and I think that that is positive.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), citing comments from Teamsters’ union General President James P. Hoffa, brought up Biden’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, resulting in the loss of about 8,000 union jobs. Walsh said workers who lost jobs at the Keystone project will be able to find new ones in other energy areas through the Build Back Better plan. But Cassidy said the Keystone jobs were lost immediately, adding, “The jobs you’re describing are in the by and by.”
Granholm Pushes Clean Energy
Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, in her Jan. 27 energy secretary confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, also faced questions about Biden’s clean-energy policy strategy.
“Coal and natural gas are not going away. Don’t leave them stranded in the ground,” stressed Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, now the top committee Republican. Despite nay votes from senators in fossil-fuel-producing states, Granholm was approved by the committee 13-4 on Feb. 3. Observers expect her to win full Senate confirmation.
“I am obsessed with creating good-paying jobs in America,” Granholm told the confirmation panel. “In making energy in America, we will make sure no worker gets left behind.” She voiced support for continued LNG export.
Emphasizing her role in diversifying the Michigan economy in the wake of auto-industry plant closures, she noted the state’s push into battery production and other renewable-energy sectors and emphasized the role DOE and its national labs can play in research and funding. Granholm said she was “1,000%” in support of prioritizing clean-energy job growth in areas of the U.S. with major fossil-fuel-sector exposure. She said the strategy would create 10 million new jobs.
Granholm noted that a “high priority” for DOE will be a joint effort with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to modify and expand the U.S. power transmission network to boost clean-energy connections. She also noted that the need to expand domestic rare-earths production to boost clean-energy growth would be a jobs producer and also the potential of DOE’s billions of dollars in funding for technology development and commercialization.
Also now set for a full Senate vote as commerce secretary is Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, who cleared Commerce Committee review with a 21-3 approval on Feb. 3. At her hearing, she said infrastructure resilience would be a priority, as would renewable energy. The nation’s first offshore wind farm was built in 2017 off her state’s coast. She also enacted new state clean-energy goals to produce all power from renewable sources by 2030.
Regan Promotes Resilience
Michael Regan, Biden’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, also sought to alleviate Republican senators’ concerns about the president’s climate-related policies linked to tension in protecting jobs in the fossil-fuel sector.
“I believe that many of the jobs and the skill sets that people have … can move quickly to [clean energy and rehabilitation] jobs,” said Regan, secretary of North Carolina’s environmental agency since 2017.
Throughout his Feb. 3 hearing, Regan stressed themes of “convening stakeholders” and incorporating science and data into decision-making. He also spoke of designing regulations to give state and local officials flexibility in how rules are applied, pointing to considerations of carbon-capture technology, the renewable-fuel standard and Clean Air Act regulations governing emissions of pollutants by coal-fired power plants.
In a marked change from the Trump administration, Regan addressed the human contribution to climate change and extreme weather events, and the job opportunities presented by mitigation and making infrastructure more resilient. “We cannot build the same way we’ve always been,” he said. “We cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together the same way every time.”
The committee sent Regan’s nomination to the Senate floor Feb. 9 in a 14-6 vote. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said ahead of the vote that she was opposing Regan because she was concerned that former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy—now in charge of Biden’s domestic climate-change plan—and others would be directing the actions at EPA, rather than Regan himself.