“The people are saying, ‘What’s going on? How come they (Congress) are not doing their job?”

Ray LaHood, former congressman and U.S. transportation secretary


Former congressman, secretary says government needs to get things done

ANGOLA — If America is going to move forward, elected officials are going to have to work together to get things done.

That theme was hammered home by former congressman and United States Department of Transportation Secretary Raymond H. “Ray” LaHood during the Distinguished Speaker Series on Monday at Trine University.

Speaking in the T. Furth Center for Performing Arts on the topic of “Seeking Bipartisanship,” LaHood said the public is frustrated that things are not getting accomplished in government, citing historically low approval ratings. He said that has played into the hands of candidates like Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

“The American people think that Congress really doesn’t do much. It doesn’t really solve problems. Whether you like Trump or not, I think that’s what he’s tapped into,” he said.

As an example, LaHood cited the announcement by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the day after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia that the Senate would not consider holding hearings for any nominee to the high court.

“The people are saying, ‘What’s going on? How come they (Congress) are not doing their job?” LaHood said.

LaHood contrasted the current gridlock to when he served as the U.S. House representative for the 18th District of Illinois. Elected in 1994 along with other Republicans in a result giving that party control of the House for the first time in 40 years, LaHood said that despite differences with then-President Bill Clinton, the Republicans in Congress were still able to work with him.

“The difference between now and back then is (U.S. House Speaker Newt) Gingrich and Clinton came to Washington to get things done,” LaHood said. “Even though they didn’t agree on much, during that period we passed three balanced budgets, we passed tax reform, we passed welfare reform, we passed two transportation bills, with a Republican Congress and a Democratic administration. Why? Because both of these men, both of these leaders, knew why they were in Washington.

“We had people who wanted to get things done and were willing to sit down and talk with one another. People with very, very different views politically and philosophically but with one view that government needs to solve problems, and that’s the difference. We don’t really have that today. And that’s why people are frustrated. That’s what we need to get back to in America.”

LaHood said that desire to work together played a part in his decision to serve on the Cabinet for President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013. Obama, LaHood said, reached out to him a few days after being elected Senator for Illinois to discuss how the two could work together to benefit their state.

“I believe this idea of bipartisanship and working together is in Barack Obama’s DNA. President Obama, when he was a Senator, really worked with all of us in our delegation for Illinois,” LaHood said. “For that two-year period, while he was a Senator and I was in Congress, we worked together for Illinois in a bipartisan way.”

When Obama was elected president and asked LaHood to serve on his cabinet, LaHood said, “I thought that this would be one of the most historic administrations in the history of our county — the first African-American president. … I wasn’t thinking about the idea of party, I was thinking about the idea of America. Thinking about the idea of service. Thinking about the idea of how we can make a difference in a very historic administration.”

Responding to audience questions after his formal presentation, LaHood encouraged those in attendance to vote in the upcoming primary elections for those who believe that government can be used to make positive changes.

“Look at the people that are running for office. Are these the people that are going to move America forward?” he said. “Are these the people that are going to solve tax reform, pass a budget, solve immigration reform, fix the roads? Or are they going to be the people that say, ‘Hey, government has no role.’ ”

Early in his address, LaHood — whose brother Steve is a Trine alumnus and trustee — also encouraged Trine students in attendance to make the most of their opportunities, noting that his interest in politics didn’t begin until after he’d graduated college and started a teaching career.

“You have no idea where your journey is going to lead you, but what you take with you from Trine University is a great education and a diploma and an opportunity — because we live in America — to do whatever you want to do, to be whatever you want to be,” he said.

Designed to give educational enrichment that complements other learning experiences, Trine University’s Distinguished Speaker Series brings experts in various fields to campus throughout the school year. All Distinguished Speaker Series events are free and open to the public.