Transportation chief reflects on effort to meet security challenge

National Journal
Few members of President Bush's Cabinet saw their profiles and responsibilities elevated more by the events of Sept. 11 than did Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta. In January,sat down with Mineta as part of its "Grading the Cabinet" project to talk about what he said was the toughest challenge he has ever undertaken.

NJ: A year ago, did you think you'd meet-or come close to meeting-all of the airport security deadlines that Congress imposed?

Well, what I said was that we were going to bust our buns to make sure we met all of the deadlines. As you will recall, right after the legislation passed, I got myself into some hot water by suggesting that I wouldn't be able to meet the requirement of checking all bags by explosive-detection systems, because at that time we had something like 130 machines across the country. We were going to be looking at the need for about 2,000 more. And we had just two companies that were producing these machines, and they were producing them at the rate of only about eight to 12 a month.

So all I could think about was, "How am I going to beat the requirement of checking all baggage with explosive-detection systems?" And so I had some reservations. But even though I had 36 mandates given to me by Congress, I had one mandate to the staff: We were going to meet all of those mandates. So in effect, at DOT we had 37 mandates-36 of them congressionally mandated, and one from me.

NJ: Was this the toughest challenge in your career, to create the Transportation Security Administration?

No question about it. This was by far the toughest, most challenging, and most satisfying endeavor I've ever undertaken.

NJ: Under the legislation passed last year, the TSA is moving over to the Department of Homeland Security. Are you somewhat relieved that this agency-which certainly produced some headaches for you-will no longer be under your control?

Between the Coast Guard and the TSA, I will lose something like 115,000 to 120,000 employees. I can do that knowing that both agencies going over to DHS are in good shape. And so I'm sorry to see them leave, but by the same token I'm very pleased with our department's accomplishment in setting up the TSA.

At the January 6 Cabinet meeting when he was giving the Cabinet an update on DHS activities, Tom Ridge thanked the president and me for delivering the TSA in good shape. And at the Cabinet meeting, when I got there, a letter was handed to me. If I could read this to you, it says, "Dear Norm. I read with great interest and great pride the December 29, 2002, memo. The memo is a clear statement of a great accomplishment. You did a heck of a job. You put together a fine team, and you led them. Congratulations to you, Norm, and those with you serving your nation with such class. Best always-George Bush." It was handwritten by the president. To me, I can't think of anything better that caps this accomplishment.

NJ: What is your relationship with the administration, and also with the Office of Management and Budget?

The relationships within the administration, I think, have been very, very good. People always say, "What's it like being the only Democrat in a Republican administration?" I always say that my problem has not really been being a D in a Republican administration, as it has been being a Californian in a sea of Texans. But seriously, my relations have been very good, as reflected in this note from the president and in other comments that he has made.

I have found in my 21 years in Congress that regardless of what administration it is, there's just a natural tension between OMB and its brother and sister agencies within the administration. And there's also natural tension that exists between the OMB and the Congress. You arm-wrestle and you put your best arguments forward. But once the decision is made, you salute and carry forward. And in that light, I don't think my experience in this administration has been any different than someone who might be a Republican.

NJ: Despite all of your experience on Capitol Hill, you have received a fair amount of criticism from Congress. Have your Hill relations been tougher than you had expected?

I guess we are always products of our own experiences. And in my 21 years in Congress, my experience was as an authorizer. That was probably the biggest thing that I had to get over as the secretary of Transportation. At DOT, I have to deal with the appropriations process, which is a very vital part of my financial breadline. But I was acting more like an authorizer, and I came to this realization when [Democratic Rep.] Jim Oberstar told me, "Hey dummy, you just can't be an authorizer." And I appreciate Jim's contribution in educating me.

I'm not there as the mole or plant of the Democratic Party. I'm there serving as a Cabinet officer, and even if you are a Cabinet officer, you are only a staffer to the president of the United States. It helped me understand that I've got to deal with the Congress-both the Democrats and Republicans, and the authorizers and appropriators.