Pillow Talk, Pillow Mark? McConnell Has Ear of Transport Secretary

Coming up the ranks as a Senate appropriator, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) mastered the art of directing funds in annual spending bills to his home state of Kentucky and eventually landed on the “Top 10” list of congressional earmarkers.

Even after Senate Republicans reluctantly endorsed an earmark ban, McConnell still found ways to keep delivering the goods to his home state. Instead of earmarking money in spending bills written by the Senate Appropriations Committee, McConnell won money for his state by lobbying officials at Cabinet agencies to steer millions in so-called discretionary funds to Kentucky. 

The latter process, known as “phone marking,” involves making direct appeals to agencies by phone and letter to win federal money for his home state. And with the Trump administration's pick for DOT secretary—Elaine Chao—McConnell may have another tool: pillow marking.

Chao and McConnell

Former Labor Secretary Chao is also McConnell’s wife, and if confirmed, she would oversee the distribution of the next round of TIGER grants as well as the agency’s overall $55 billion discretionary budget. 

McConnell has repeatedly come out on top in the phone-marking process. For example, his advocacy has helped Kentucky win some of the biggest Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) discretionary grants awarded annually by the Transportation Department.

This year, McConnell won a $14.1 million grant to join the downtown Lexington greenway with existing trail systems. The previous year DOT awarded Kentucky $16.9 million in TIGER monies to install transit infrastructure and make other improvements in Louisville. Local officials said the awards reflected McConnell’s willingness to repeatedly weigh in with outgoing Secretary Anthony Foxx and his agency.

Now, McConnell’s even closer access to the DOT secretary designate could help him advocate for projects for other Senate Republicans—especially those running for reelection in 2018.

But a McConnell spokesman said the leader’s approach won’t be any different than when Chao served previously as secretary of the Labor Department in the Bush administration.

“We will go through the regular process,” the spokesman said. “We’ve done it before.”

McConnell is expected to quickly move Chao’s nomination on the Senate floor, possibly as soon as Jan. 20.

“I think it was an outstanding choice,” McConnell said.