And that makes him different from Joe Biden’s White House … how, exactly? Politico stirred up a hornet’s nest when reporting on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s absence on the job, thanks to paternity leave after the adoption of his new children with husband Chasten. They headlined the piece, “Can Pete Buttigieg have it all?”, but the very first line accused Buttigieg of being missing in action in the supply-chain crisis.
Pretty much like his boss, then:
PETE BUTTIGIEG has been MIA.
While U.S. ports faced anchor-to-anchor traffic and Congress nearly melted down over the president’s infrastructure bill in recent weeks, the usually omnipresent Transportation secretary was lying low.
One of the White House’s go-to communicators didn’t appear on TV. He was absent on Capitol Hill during the negotiations over the bill he had been previously helping sell to different members of Congress. Conservative critics tried (unsuccessfully) to get #WheresPete to trend and Fox News ran a story on October 4 with the headline: “Buttigieg quiet on growing port congestion as shipping concerns build ahead of holidays.”
They didn’t previously announce it, but Buttigieg’s office told West Wing Playbook that the secretary has actually been on paid leave since mid-August to spend time with his husband, Chasten, and their two newborn babies.
Er … since when have Cabinet secretaries taken months off at a time for parental leave? Since now, apparently, even when crises brew within their portfolio. After all, Cabinet officials do not formally fall under the federal family leave system, and for good reason. Those positions are considered too critical for the operation of government to mandate such lengthy absences — although as Politico points out, the president has wide discretion to allow it. They also report that acting OMB director Shalanda Young will take maternity leave soon, but Management and Budget isn’t dealing with a months-long supply-chain crisis that is wrecking the economy and spiking inflation, either.
Traditionally, Cabinet secretaries have only taken a brief period to deal with family expansion. Julián Castro took a week off when his child was born, Politico notes, when he ran HUD. Having an extended absence at the top of a complicated federal bureaucracy means either (a) that its operations grind to a halt from the absence of leadership, or (b) that Cabinet secretary position should get reconsidered in light of its lack of necessity.
Of course, critics of Buttigieg’s absence have attacked critics for supposed homophobia, even though the nature of Buttigieg’s family isn’t the issue in the criticism. Tucker Carlson’s quip that Buttigieg was using the time to “figure out how to breastfeed” didn’t help matters, and was a non-sequitur anyway. Parental leave in the federal and private sectors have long included fathers as well as mothers, and adoptive parents as well as natural-birth parents too. The issue here is having the head of a massive federal bureaucracy go “MIA” in the middle of a crisis.
Or so it would be, if Biden himself hadn’t been MIA on the supply chain crisis for months. Perhaps Buttigieg might have done something to push Biden into action earlier had Buttigieg been around, but Buttigieg was MIA on the supply-chain crisis before his parental leave too. This isn’t really about Buttigieg not being on the job, but about Biden and his entire administration not being on the ball. They only belatedly have reacted to the crisis, and only because inflation has kept spiking despite their assurances that inflation would be “transitory.”
Not only has the entire White House been MIA on this, they’re still clueless about it. No one has apparently told them that the current American distribution system doesn’t have the capacity or the flexibility to deal with disruptions of this scope, not after decades of employing Just In Time inventory management. The warehouses, trains, truckers, and longshoreman resources needed to manage this crisis simply doesn’t exist. Going to night shifts won’t solve anything, as shipping experts have been trying to explain for weeks now. And tasking the nation’s top retailers to create private distribution workarounds will only benefit those big-box retailers at the expense of smaller businesses, expanding the wealth gap in the US and handicapping the small-business model that provides our flexibility for recoveries.
This blindness is what you get when you put the mayor of South Bend in charge of the nation’s transportation system, not a result of his parental leave. It’s what you get when you elect a five-decade legislator to an executive position. No one knows what’s wrong with the system, let alone how to fix it, and more to the point no one’s paying attention until circumstances force them to do so.
Tom Cotton hits the nail on the head. Even if Buttigieg had been in the office every day, he’s not competent enough at transportation to arrange a one-car funeral procession. One point to note in this discussion: the trucker shortage predates the pandemic. There have been red flags on this issue going back at least a couple of years, if not more, as Olivier Knox has noted. All it took was a significant disruption to expose this weakness … and here we are.
Update: A.J. Kaufman writes that this is what happens when Cabinet positions get handed out for political support rather than industry expertise. He has further thoughts as well.