Five Cabinet Secretaries Face Senate Barrage

Questions range from infrastructure to nuclear waste to the Census

Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune's panel hosted five Cabinet secretaries on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune's panel hosted five Cabinet secretaries on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 14, 2018 at 2:33pm

It’s not every day — or even every decade — that five cabinet secretaries walk in to testify at the same Senate hearing.

And while Wednesday’s Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing generally focused on President Donald Trump’s proposal to rebuild American infrastructure (and doubts about how to pay for it), senators took full advantage of having so many heavy hitters in one room.

Questions were not just from all over the map. Sen. Dean Heller even brought a map.

The Nevada Republican brought a chart showing routes that nuclear waste might travel to get to the long-proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, two hours from Las Vegas.

Heller pressed Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao about potential risks of an accident moving nuclear material on highways across the country, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry about the Trump administration proposal to fund a licensing process for the Yucca Mountain site, which Congress has repeatedly blocked through the appropriations process.

“I would argue that the previous administration wasn’t following the law. The law is pretty clear,” Perry said. “That’s what it is senator, it’s about following the law. The law says that we will go forward with finding out the answer on this licensing issue.”

Heller noted that Congress has rejected the proposal, and pointed to what is going to happen in the Energy and Water title of the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill due to the Senate floor next week, “in 2018 that language will also be removed.”

Perry signaled the administration is likely to request funding again, adding “I expect the result will also be about the same.”

Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters focused largely on the transportation and infrastructure proposal, including asking both Chao and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta about the Trump administration’s willingness to apply Buy America provisions and the prevailing wage law known as Davis-Bacon.

Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin similarly pushed the panel of Cabinet members for further clarity on the applicability of Buy America provisions, which were not spelled out explicitly in the Trump proposal.

Chao sought to make clear that Buy America waivers have been granted less frequently under the current president than in the past, citing her own past experience, which included service in both Bush administrations.

Davis-Bacon is a particular anathema to conservatives, but generally has the  votes to prevail even in the House with the backing of Republicans from strong union states, and Chao and Acosta indicated they knew no bipartisan infrastructure plan could advance without it.

But Peters also had a final question for Wilbur Ross, the secretary of Commerce, seeking a commitment to meet with Michigan cherry growers who have been battling trade practices that have included dumping on the U.S. market.

Ross faced plenty of trade questions, including skepticism of the aluminum and steel tariffs that he has been promoting. But — in a sign that a Cabinet secretary better be prepared for anything — he also heard about the 2020 Census.

“As you know, we very early on began a very diligent analysis of the cost projections that had been made, and we concluded that they had greatly underestimated the costs that would be needed in order to have full and fair and complete census. We believe that the monies that we’ve requested should be adequate to fund it,” Ross said in response to a question from Rules and Administration ranking member Amy Klobuchar.

The Minnesota Democrat also asked about their shared interest in promoting American tourism through the Brand USA program, in response to which Commerce Chairman John Thune weighed in by pointing out that many visitors to Mount Rushmore in his home state of South Dakota come through Minnesota on the way.

Aviation policy made the agenda as well, with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, talking up the potential of privatizing the air traffic control system, something that has been shelved by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania in the interest of trying to get a bipartisan reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Authorization through to Trump’s desk this year.

And Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat from New Hampshire, asked Chao about potential efforts to roll back airline regulations, including those that provide convenient access to wheelchairs for passengers with disabilities and for the generally available 24-hour grace period after ticket purchases.

“I’m not here to defend the airline industry, but this whole string of things that you mentioned, some of it involves website notice, and we think that a lot of it is on the website already,” said Chao. “Clearly some of these others I agree with you and disagree with others.”

As the hearing was wrapping up after one full round of questions that took several hours, Klobuchar asked what the Cabinet members might have found the most the important of all.

“Are you hungry for lunch? You can answer that question,” she said. “It’s fine.”