Elaine Chao, the former Labor Secretary and top DOT official with deep ties to the maritime industry, was confirmed Tuesday as the U.S. Transportation Secretary.
The Senate voted 93-6 in favor of confirming Chao, with one senator voting present. Chao, 63, has considerable government experience and counts friends on both sides of the aisle. She is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
As Secretary of Labor for eight years under George W. Bush, and deputy DOT Secretary under President George H. W. Bush, Chao spoke often before maritime groups, underscoring the importance of the merchant marine to the economy and national defense. She also served as chair of the Federal Maritime Commission from 1988-89, and deputy administrator at the Maritime Administration during the Reagan administration.
In her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation on Jan. 11, Chao offered unequivocal support for the Jones Act when questioned by Senators Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
“The Jones Act is the law of the land, and it will be obeyed unless the Congress changes its mind on that," Chao said.
Chao will confront a lengthy task list implementing President Donald Trump’s ambitious — yet largely undefined — plans to rebuild the country’s aging infrastructure that will likely include ports and waterways. Before being sworn in the president said that infrastructure improvements topped his to-do list. Many in Washington believe Chao’s experience in the executive branch and as a private banker who closed deals on transportation funding will be assets in her new post.
While at the Labor Department, Chao was a pro-business administrator who supported privatization and deregulation and was lax on enforcement and worker safety, according to the New York Times. It’s not yet clear how such views might affect maritime policies.
Chao has family ties to the shipping industry. Her father, James Chao, joined the merchant marine after majoring in navigation in college in China and rose to the rank of captain at the age of 29. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1958 and after settling in New York City founded Foremost Maritime Corp. In 2016, Foremost donated thousands of dollars to help McConnell win re-election.