Department of Transportation

Put the Whole Department of Transportation on Paternity Leave

Pete Buttigieg attracted some criticism for taking time off. But it's telling that no one initially realized he was gone.


The U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, "has actually been on paid leave since mid-August to spend time with his husband, Chasten, and their two newborn babies," Politico reported on October 14.

What's mildly humorous about this is that, until the Politico report, no one much noticed that Buttigieg had been missing.

The Department of Transportation website has a section for speeches by Buttigieg. The most recent one listed was on August 9.

Washington has a well-earned reputation for shutting down for a vacation of nearly European proportions during the month of August, leaving summer interns to finish out their stays unsupervised amid the capital city's staggering humidity. Stretching that late-summer break stealthily into mid-October raises the question: If the rest of the Transportation Department's nearly 55,000 employees disappeared along with Mayor Pete, would anyone miss them?

The United States somehow managed to survive from independence in 1776 all the way to the passage of the Department of Transportation Act in 1966 without a secretary of transportation or a department of transportation. Americans in the cities and states had managed to transport themselves places even in the absence a federal department devoted to the task. The New York City subway had been built. The San Francisco cable cars were running. The Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the transcontinental railroad, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the Sumner and Callahan Tunnels beneath Boston Harbor, the George Washington Bridge, the St. Lawrence Seaway—all were completed without the existence of a federal department of transportation.

After the department was created, progress in major infrastructure projects stalled. People point to airline passenger safety as a success, but the Boeing 737 Max fiasco and the September 11, 2001, hijackings call even that into question.

Any truly necessary functions of the transportation department could be returned, with relatively minimal hassle, to the Commerce Department, where those functions rested before 1966, or to the states, counties, cities, and towns.

In 2011, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry attempted to propose closing three cabinet departments, but couldn't remember the third one. He ended up serving in the Trump administration as secretary of energy, heading a department whose elimination he had supported though couldn't recall during a televised debate. Recent presidents have added government units—the Department of Homeland Security, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, the Space Force—rather than shutting them down. There were some exceptions. President Reagan proposed eliminating the Interstate Commerce Commission, which finally did sunset on January 1, 1996. President Jimmy Carter set in motion the end of the Civil Aeronautics Board, yet another federal agency that has proved, by ceasing to exist, that it was less than entirely essential to begin with.

Buttigieg was such a refreshing presence during the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign that he attracted plenty of serious interest notwithstanding his youth and his limited experience as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. The best service he could do the country at this point would be to follow in the footsteps of so many other working parents whose time away from the office during the pandemic inspired them to quit their jobs and stay home with their families. Imagine if Buttigieg were to emerge from paternity leave with the message that even the guy who was supposed to be running the federal transportation department didn't much miss it while he was gone.

The cost savings from getting rid of the Department of Transportation—$80 billion or $90 billion a year—could go toward tax cuts, deficit reduction, or financing the rest of Biden's "Build Back Better" agenda. Such an approach could build for Biden and Buttigieg a reputation that they are able and willing not only to add to government but also, when warranted, to reduce and reorganize the entrenched Washington bureaucracy.

If totally getting rid of the department seems too drastic, perhaps Biden and his allies in the Democrat-controlled Congress can start with a more incremental test. Let the rest of the Transportation Department's employees also take two months of leave, like Secretary Buttigieg did. If no one misses them, either, maybe they, too, are better off not planning a return to the office anytime soon. They could look for alternative employment in the private sector.