Elaine Chao

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Elaine Chao
Elaine Chao official portrait.jpg
18th United States Secretary of Transportation
Assumed office
January 31, 2017
President Donald Trump
Deputy Jeffrey A. Rosen
Preceded by Anthony Foxx
24th United States Secretary of Labor
In office
January 29, 2001 – January 20, 2009
President George W. Bush
Preceded by Alexis Herman
Succeeded by Hilda Solis
12th Director of the Peace Corps
In office
October 8, 1991 – November 13, 1992
President George H. W. Bush
Preceded by Paul Coverdell
Succeeded by Carol Bellamy
United States Deputy Secretary of Transportation
In office
April 19, 1989 – October 8, 1991
President George H. W. Bush
Preceded by Mary Ann Dawson
Succeeded by James B. Busey IV
Chair of the Federal Maritime Commission
In office
April 29, 1988 – April 19, 1989
President Ronald Reagan
George H. W. Bush
Preceded by Edward Hickey
Succeeded by James Carey
Commissioner of the Federal Maritime Commission
In office
April 29, 1988 – April 19, 1989
President Ronald Reagan
George H. W. Bush
Preceded by Edward Hickey
Succeeded by Ming Hsu
Personal details
Born Elaine Lan Chao
(1953-03-26) March 26, 1953 (age 65)
Taipei, Taiwan
Political party Republican
Mitch McConnell (m. 1993)
Parents James Chao
Ruth Chu
Education Mount Holyoke College (BA)
Harvard University (MBA)
Net worth $24 million[1]
Elaine Chao
Traditional Chinese 趙小蘭
Simplified Chinese 赵小兰

Elaine Lan Chao (Chinese: 趙小蘭; pinyin: Zhào Xiǎolán; born March 26, 1953)[2] is the 18th and current United States Secretary of Transportation. A member of the Republican Party, she was previously a cabinet member in the administration of President George W. Bush.

On November 29, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump nominated Chao to serve as the Secretary of Transportation.[3] She was confirmed by the Senate on January 31, 2017, in a 93–6 vote.[4]

Chao served as the 24th United States Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009, and as Deputy Secretary of Transportation and Director of the Peace Corps under President George H. W. Bush.[5][6] Chao served as president of the United Way of America from 1992-1996 and served as a Distinguished Fellow with The Heritage Foundation before and after her service as U.S. Secretary of Labor. Prior to being sworn in as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation on January 31, 2017, she was a Distinguished Fellow with the Hudson Institute.

Born in Taipei, Taiwan, to Chinese parents who had left mainland China in 1949, Chao was the first Asian American woman and the first Chinese American in U.S. history to be appointed to a President's Cabinet. Chao is married to U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has been the Senate Majority Leader since January 3, 2015.[7]

Early life and education[edit]

Elaine Chao immigrated to the United States when she was eight years old.[5] The eldest of six daughters, Chao was born in Taipei, Taiwan to Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, a historian, and James S.C. Chao, who began his career as a merchant mariner and in 1964 founded a shipping company in New York City. The company, Foremost Maritime Corporation, developed into the Foremost Group; as of 2013, James S.C. Chao continued to serve as its Chairman.[8] James first met Ruth when she and her family relocated to Shanghai during World War II. In 1949, James and Ruth relocated separately to Taiwan at the culmination of the Chinese Civil War. They married in 1950. In 1961, Elaine came to the United States on a 37-day freight ship journey along with her mother and two younger sisters. Her father had arrived in New York three years earlier after receiving a scholarship.[9][10]

Chao attended Tsai Hsing Elementary School in Taipei for kindergarten and first grade,[5][11] and subsequently attended Syosset High School in Syosset, New York, on Long Island.[12] She was naturalized as a U.S. citizen at the age of 19.[13]

Chao received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1975. In the second semester of her junior year, she studied money and banking at Dartmouth College. She received a MBA degree from Harvard Business School in 1979. While at Harvard Business School, Chao was the first woman at Harvard to be elected class officer and class marshal. She was a member of the finance club, the financial accounting club, the international business club and the transportation club.

Chao has received 37 honorary doctorates,[14] including an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Georgetown University in 2015.[15]


Early career[edit]

Before entering public service, Chao was Vice President for syndications at Bank of America Capital Markets Group in San Francisco, California, and an International Banker at Citicorp in New York for four years.[16]

She was granted a White House Fellowship in 1983 during the Reagan Administration.[17]

Chao with George H. W. Bush and Mitch McConnell in 1991

In 1986, Chao became Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation. From 1988 to 1989, she served as Chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission.[18] In 1989, President George H. W. Bush nominated Chao to be Deputy Secretary of Transportation, serving from 1989 to 1991.[19] From 1991 to 1992, she was the Director of the Peace Corps.[18] She was the first Asian Pacific American to serve in any of these positions. She expanded the Peace Corps' presence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia by establishing the first Peace Corps programs in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.[20][21]

Between Bush Administrations[edit]

Following her service in President George H.W. Bush's administration, Chao worked for four years as President and CEO of United Way of America.[22][23] She is credited with returning credibility and public trust to the organization after a financial mismanagement scandal involving former president William Aramony. From 1996 until her appointment as Secretary of Labor, Chao was a Distinguished Fellow with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.[24] She was also a board member of the Independent Women's Forum.[25] She returned to the Heritage Foundation after leaving the government in January 2009.[26]

U.S. Secretary of Labor (2001–2009)[edit]

Portrait of Elaine Chao by Chen Yanning in the Great Hall of the U.S. Department of Labor's Frances Perkins Building. It features the American flag, the Kentucky state flag, the U.S. Capitol, and photos of her husband, Mitch McConnell, and her parents, James and Ruth Chao.[27]

Chao was the only cabinet member in the George W. Bush administration to serve for the entirety of his eight years.[28] She was also the longest-serving Secretary of Labor since Frances Perkins, who served from 1933 to 1945, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.[29]

According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration statistics, in 2007 – six years into Chao's tenure – "the workplace fatality rate... declined 14 percent since 2001, and since 2002, the workplace injury and illness rate... dropped 21 percent – with both at all-time lows."[30] Under her leadership, the U.S. Department of Labor undertook regulatory and legislative reforms in "protecting the health, safety, wages, and retirement security" of U.S. workers by "recovering record levels of back wages and monetary recoveries for pension plans, and obtaining record financial settlements for discrimination by federal contractors." She also restructured departmental programs and modernized regulations.[31] Over the course of her tenure, the Department reduced their discretionary budget from $11.7 billion to $11.6 billion and was the first cabinet-level agency to have been rated "green" by the Office of Management and Budget, having exhibited excellence in budget management practices in every area.[32]

Union disclosure requirements[edit]

In 2002, a major West Coast ports dispute costing the U.S. economy nearly $1 billion daily was resolved when the Bush administration obtained a national emergency injunction against both the employers and the union under the Taft–Hartley Act for the first time since 1971.[33] Led by Chao In 2003, for the first time in more than 40 years, the Department updated the labor union financial disclosure regulations under the Landrum–Griffin Act of 1959, which created more extensive disclosure requirements for union-sponsored pension plans and other trusts to prevent embezzlement or other financial mismanagement.[34]

In 2004, the Department issued revisions of the white-collar overtime regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act.[35]

Government Accountability Office reports[edit]

Chao's official Secretary of Labor photo

After analyzing 70,000 closed case files from 2005 to 2007, the Government Accountability Office reported that the Department's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) inadequately investigated complaints from low- and minimum-wage workers alleging that employers failed to pay the federal minimum wage, required overtime, and failed to issue a last paycheck.[36][37]

A 2008 Government Accountability Office report noted that the Labor Department gave Congress inaccurate numbers that understated the expense of contracting out its employees' work to private firms during Chao's tenure.[38][39]

Mining regulation[edit]

A 2007 report by the department's inspector general found that mine safety regulators did not conduct federally required inspections at more than 14% of the country's 731 underground coal mines, and that the number of worker deaths in mining accidents more than doubled to 47.[40] Subsequently, on December 10, 2008, Chao announced that the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) had, for the first time in the agency's 31-year history, achieved its goal of completing every mandated regular inspection for the year, then consisting of 14,800 active mining operations. This announcement was made within the first year of the agency's "100 Percent Plan", which was launched by the MSHA in October 2007 to improve the completion of quarterly and biannual inspections.[41]

OSHA statistics for 2007 and 2008 revealed that overall workplace fatality rates and workplace injury and illness rates were "both at all-time lows".[30][42] A 2009 internal audit appraising an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) initiative focusing on problematic workplaces, however, stated that employees had failed to gather needed data, conducted uneven inspections and enforcement, and failed to discern repeat fatalities because records misspelled the companies' names or failed to notice when two subsidiaries with the same owner were involved.[43]

Post-Bush administration (2009–2017)[edit]

Chao's first Secretary of Transportation portrait

In 2009 Chao resumed her previous role as a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation,[26] and she contributed to Fox News and other media outlets.[44]

She also served as a director on a number of corporate and non-profit boards,[16][45] including the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Wells Fargo,[46] New York–Presbyterian Hospital, News Corp,[47] Dole Food Company,[48] and Protective Life Corporation.[49][50][51] According to financial disclosure forms, Chao was slated to receive between $1–5 million for compensation for her service on the board of Wells Fargo.[52] In June 2011, she was awarded the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service.[53]

In January 2015 she resigned from the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which she had joined in 2012,[54] because of its plans to significantly increase support for the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" initiative.[55]

In 2011 and 2013, Chao attended Shanghai signing ceremonies for Capesize bulkers launched by the Foremost Group, her father's company, where she spoke publicly about U.S.–China relations.[56] At the 2013 ceremony, Chao stated, "The U.S.-China relations[hip] is among the most important bilateral relationships in the world. And as such, there is no other alternative but to have a harmonious and a cooperative relationship. As with any relationship, there are bound to be ups, downs, disagreements, but in the overall scheme of things, in the overall direction, for the benefit of the world, [the] U.S. and China must get along, and must find a way to do so."[57]

In 2013, Chao recorded a motivational video to inspire Asian-American children.[58]

In February 2017, it was reported by the Associated Press that in addition to former Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps General James T. Conway, President Obama's former National Security Advisor General James Jones, former CIA Directors Porter Goss and James R. Woolsey and former FBI Director Louis Free and Vermont Governor Howard Dean, Chao had addressed organizations linked to the People's Mujahedin of Iran (aka Mojahedin-e Khalq or MEK), a group exiled from Iran after actions in the 1970s against the Shah of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Chao was paid a total of $67,000 for the two speeches, which took place in 2015 and 2016.[59][60][61]

Chao served as a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute until she was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of Transportation on January 31, 2017.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation (2017–present)[edit]

Chao at her confirmation hearing to be Secretary of Transportation

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump announced on November 29, 2016, that he would nominate Chao to be Secretary of Transportation.[3] The U.S. Senate confirmed Chao on January 31, 2017 by a vote of 93–6, with her husband Senator McConnell abstaining.[4]

Major Policy Initiatives

During her first year as Secretary of Transportation, major policy initiatives under Chao included: 1) Automated Driving Systems, also known as "autonomous vehicle" technology or "driverless" vehicles; 2) Unmanned Aircraft Systems, also known as "drones"; 3) the president's infrastructure proposal.

On September 12, 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation published new voluntary guidance for the safe testing and integration of autonomous vehicles. Entitled "Automated Driving Systems: A Vision for Safety 2.0",[62] the guidelines were slated as a non-regulatory approach to promote innovation in the automated vehicle space. DOT contended that automated driving systems have the potential to save lives, reduce congestion, and expand mobility.[63][64] On March 5, 2018 in remarks at the National Bike Summit, Secretary Chao announced that a multi-modal version, AV 3.0, was expected to be released during the summer of 2018. Chao stated that AV 3.0 would: "include various surface transportation systems, such as mass transit, rail, and trucking. And will again highlight the need for AVs to operate safely in proximity to bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as other vehicles."[65]

On October 25, 2017, the President directed the Department to establish a new drone initiative—the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program. The program sought the participation of local governments and private partners to gather data for safely advancing flights over people and package deliveries in selected jurisdictions.[66] The purpose was to test the safe operation of drones in a variety of conditions currently prohibited. These include operations over people, beyond line of sight (BLOS), and at night. The program allows interested communities to test drones in ways tailored to local needs, conditions and interests. The intended result is to demonstrate how drones can safely perform a wide range of activities, at different times of the day, and across a variety of locations and geographies. Approximately 150 communities and private sector partners applied to participate in the program. On May 9, 2018, Secretary Chao announced 10 projects selected for the UAS Integration Pilot Program. She stated that they would "help open the door for drone applications in agriculture, commerce, health care, emergency response, disaster assistance, and even human transportation."[67][68][69]

As of May 4, 2018 there were 1.1 million registered drones in the U.S. and more than 90,000 registered drone operators.[70]

The Department of Transportation has been one of 17 government agencies working on the White House's comprehensive infrastructure proposal since President Trump announced it as a priority at the outset of his administration in 2017. The proposal, which was presented to Congress on February 12, 2018, includes transportation, water, energy and broadband.[71][72] The stated goal is to "stimulate" approximately $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investment, which includes a minimum of $200 billion in direct federal funding. The guiding principles behind this are 1) to use federal dollars as seed money to incentivize infrastructure investment; 2) to address the needs of rural communities; 3) to streamline project delivery, and 4) to invest in transformative projects (Elon Musk's "hyperloop" being an oft-cited example).[73] In addition, the proposal's advocates emphasize local decision making.

Related to the Administration's comprehensive infrastructure effort is a series of "regulatory reform" actions being taken at the agency level. On August 15, 2017, Chao joined President Donald Trump as he signed an Executive Order to streamline the permitting and review processes for infrastructure projects. Entitled "Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects", it sought to expedite project delivery by shortening the processes for environmental reviews and other permits. The Executive Order allows the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in consultation with Federal Permitting Improvement Screening Council (FPISC) agencies, to establish a Cross Agency Priority (CAP) goal for environmental reviews and permitting of infrastructure projects. OMB will develop a quarterly scorecard of agency progress in meeting the goals, and progress will be tracked on performance.gov.[74]

Additionally, the Executive Order requires major infrastructure projects to be processed as "One Federal Decision" with a comprehensive schedule and automatic elevation to senior agency officials upon missing or extending a milestone. "One Federal Decision" consolidates within a single federal agency a major infrastructure project's environmental review and permitting. It also establishes an interagency working group to review each agency's National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) implementing regulations and environmental permitting policies for impediments and calls for each agency to develop an action plan for removing those impediments.[75]

Emergency Response Actions

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation responded to several emergency situations. On March 31, 2017, a fire triggered the collapse of a major overpass of I-85 in Atlanta, Georgia. Within 12 hours, after approvals from President Trump and Secretary Chao, FHWA awarded the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) $10 million for emergency repairs, along with other logistical support. The bridge reopened 49 days later.[76][77]

The 2017 hurricane season affected approximately 25.8 million people, or nearly 8 percent of the United States population, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated the total cost of the three major 2017 hurricanes to be approximately $265 billion, placing them among the top five costliest hurricanes on record in the United States along with Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.[78]

During September and October of 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation and its various modes mobilized in advance of landfall to prepare for and respond to emergencies caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) deployed Mobile Air Traffic Control towers to damaged airport facilities and issued 300+ authorizations/waivers for drone operations.[79] The Federal Highway Administration provided $97 million in relief funds. The Maritime Administration used 3 ships to deliver aid and provided more than 21,000 berths and 48,000 meals to emergency responders and residents; the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued 11 Regional Emergency Declarations covering 27 states. And the Federal Transit Administration provided $85 million in grants to the impacted areas.

On October 9, 2017 Secretary Chao accompanied Vice President Mike Pence to Puerto Rico and St. Croix and did an aerial survey of St. Thomas and St. John islands. They met with local government officials, civic leaders and residents. To aid Puerto Rico's recovery, Chao directed that $42.5 million in Emergency Relief Funds be released to help rebuild roads and bridges and another $8.4 million for transit systems, including ferries and buses. USDOT established an "air bridge" between the continental U.S. and Puerto Rico, using FAA aircraft to transport critical supplies and personnel. FAA swiftly restored airspace capacity to pre-storm levels. Federal assistance including personnel, supplies and equipment are being provided to support recovery efforts. More than 8 million meals and 8 million liters of water have been provided. Chao noted that over 230 USDOT employees had volunteered for the Call to Serve program to help with recovery efforts in USVI, Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas.[80][81][82]

Recovery assistance is continuing, with the April 13, 2018 USDOT release of more than $1 billion in Emergency Relief (ER) funds to help 32 states, several U.S. territories and Federal Land Management Agencies (FLMA) repair roads and bridges damaged by storms, floods and other unexpected events. At approximately $263.7 million, more than a fourth of the total amount provided will be used to repair damages caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. This includes awards of $75,000,000 to Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey; $97,000,000 to Florida as they repair damage from Hurricane Irma; and $70,000,000 to assist in Puerto Rico's rebuilding after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.[83]

Personal life[edit]

In 1993, Chao married Mitch McConnell, the senior U.S. Senator from Kentucky and the eventual Senate Majority Leader. They were introduced by Stuart Bloch, an early friend of McConnell's, and his wife Julia Chang Bloch, a Chinese American and a future U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, the first Asian American to serve as US Ambassador, who mentored Chao. Bloch described Chao as a "tiger wife", a reference to Amy Chua's 2011 book about her disciplinarian parenting style.[7]

The University of Louisville's Ekstrom Library opened the "McConnell-Chao Archives" in November 2009. It is a major component of the university's McConnell Center.[84][85]

In an interview with CNN, Chao said she sometimes regrets not having children, and she counseled young women that there are trade-offs in life.[86]

Husband's campaigning[edit]

In the two years leading up to the 2014 U.S. Senate elections, she "headlined fifty of her own events and attended hundreds more with and on behalf of" her husband and was seen as "a driving force of his reelection campaign" and eventual victory over Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, who had portrayed McConnell as "anti-woman".[87] After winning the election, McConnell said, "The biggest asset I have by far is the only Kentucky woman who served in a president's cabinet, my wife, Elaine Chao."[88]

She has been described by Jan Karzen, a longtime friend of McConnell's, as adding "a softer touch" to McConnell's style by speaking of him "in a feminine, wifely way".[7] She has also been described as "the campaign hugger"[87] and is also known for bipartisan socializing. For example, in 2014 she hosted a dinner with philanthropist Catherine B. Reynolds to welcome Penny Pritzker as Secretary of Commerce, where she spent the evening socializing with Valerie Jarrett, Obama's closest advisor.[7]

The New York Times has described her as "an unapologetically ambitious operator with an expansive network, a short fuse, and a seemingly inexhaustible drive to get to the top and stay there."

The Chao family[edit]

Elaine Chao is the oldest of six sisters, the others being Jeannette, May, Christine, Grace, and Angela.[89][90]

In April 2008, Chao's father gave Chao and McConnell between $5 million and $25 million,[91] which "boosted McConnell's personal worth from a minimum of $3 million in 2007 to more than $7 million"[92] and "helped the McConnells after their stock portfolio dipped in the wake of the financial crisis that year."[93]

As Secretary of Transportation, Chao appeared in at least a dozen interviews with her father, a shipping magnate with extensive business interests in the United States and China.[94] Ethics experts said that the appearances raised ethical concerns, as public officials are prohibited from using their office to profit others or themselves.[94]

In 2012, the Chao family donated $40 million to Harvard Business School for scholarships for students of Chinese heritage and the Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center, an executive education building named for Chao's late mother.[95][96] It is the first building named after a woman on the Harvard campus and the first building named after an American of Asian ancestry.[97] Ruth Mulan Chu Chao returned to school at age 51 to earn a master's degree in Asian literature and history from St. John's University in the Queens borough of New York City.[89]

See also[edit]


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