House, Senate disagree over namesake for DOT headquarters

Dueling bills would honor different former secretaries

A detour sign stands at a road construction site on New Jersey Avenue Northwest in Washington in May. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A detour sign stands at a road construction site on New Jersey Avenue Northwest in Washington in May. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 5, 2021 at 9:44am

The House and Senate are engaged in a standoff over which former secretary of Transportation to name the DOT headquarters after.

The Senate moved first, passing a bill by unanimous consent April 14 to name it after the first Black Transportation secretary, William T. Coleman Jr. But the House rebutted that suggestion Thursday, voting 409-14 on a bill to rename the building after former Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta, the first Asian American to hold the post.

Coleman, a lawyer who died in 2017, served as Transportation secretary during the Ford administration, from 1975 to 1977.

Before that, he defended the Freedom Riders, worked with Thurgood Marshall on desegregation lawsuits and was an author of the legal brief for the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. Coleman later served as the first Black clerk to a Supreme Court justice.

He was the second Black American to serve as a Cabinet member; the first, Robert C. Weaver, served as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.

Introducing the bill to rename the headquarters in January, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Coleman “provided a forward-looking vision for the future of transportation, spearheading the first comprehensive national transportation policy study and several important reform efforts.”

“Naming the Department of Transportation headquarters after Secretary Coleman would be a fitting tribute for this distinguished public servant,” Wicker said.

By contrast, Mineta, who served as secretary of Transportation from 2001 to 2006, during George W. Bush’s administration, is the longest-serving secretary of Transportation in the history of the department.

Mineta was the first Asian American Cabinet member as well as the first Cabinet member to transition from a Democratic to Republican administration. Before serving as Transportation Secretary, he served as Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton. As a Democratic member of Congress from California, he served as chairman of what was then known as the House Public Works and Transportation Committee from 1993 to 1995.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., who originally refused to weigh in on naming the building at 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE, argued in a July interview that Mineta would be a more appropriate namesake.

“He put a phenomenal amount of his talent and life into transportation infrastructure,” DeFazio said of Mineta, who is now 89. “Mr. Coleman was a short-time Transportation secretary under one president, and I’d be happy to find something else to name for him. But I think if you’re looking for someone who has an extraordinary, outstanding record over decades on transportation, it’s Norm Mineta.”

For his part, the current Transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, declined to pick a side when asked about the issue in August.

“We are, of course, ready to move forward as Congress calls on us to do,” he said.