Obama to fill SEC, transportation and trade roles

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 17, 2008 

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama has made his selections for Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, transportation secretary and U.S. trade representative, insiders said Wednesday.

The trio, former SEC commissioner Mary Schapiro, retiring Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, could play an important collective role in restoring investor confidence and reviving the nation's economy. Obama was expected to announce some, if not all, of the appointments at a Thursday news conference in Chicago.

Schapiro, who'd the head embattled SEC, is a Clinton administration veteran who also was an SEC commissioner for six years. Since 2007, she's led the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, a nongovernmental regulator for securities firms doing business in the U.S. It oversees more than 5,000 brokerage firms and more than 676,000 registered securities representatives, with an eye toward investor protection.

Obama's choice of LaHood, a Republican congressman from Peoria, Ill., to serve as transportation secretary, fulfills a promise to name Republicans to the Cabinet. LaHood, who has transportation legislation experience, would play an important part beginning early next year in shaping how billions of infrastructure dollars are spent to stimulate the U.S. economy.

Schapiro and LaHood's selections were confirmed by a senior Democrat with knowledge of the process who spoke on condition of anonymity because the nominations hadn't been announced.

Meanwhile, Kirk is expected to be announced as a surprise pick for trade representative, said two industry lobbyists who both spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the decision.

Kirk, whose title would be ambassador, was the first black mayor of Dallas and would become one of the highest profile African-Americans on the international stage. The Obama transition team didn't confirm or deny Kirk's selection. Kirk, reached by e-mail, declined to comment.

Former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, a Democratic fundraiser, said Kirk "had a great tenure in Dallas bringing people together. He'll be a quick study."

Kirk, a lawyer who's well regarded but has little international trade experience, initially was a frontrunner for the transportation post, the lobbyists said. When trade representative prospect Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., opted to stay in the House of Representatives, Kirk expressed a preference for the trade post, the lobbyists said.

The trade representative will negotiate trade deals for a president who's been skeptical of the Bush administration's approach and could likely emphasize stronger labor and environmental conditions in trade pacts. Obama also suggested during the campaign that he'd press to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

LaHood, an appropriator and former transportation committee member, enjoys a reputation as a moderate. LaHood also has a good relationship with many Democrats, including Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who'll be Obama's White House chief of staff. His nomination would continue a tradition of sorts: When President George W. Bush wanted a Democrat for his Cabinet, he tapped former California Rep. Norman Mineta, who was transportation secretary from 2001 to 2006.

In Congress, LaHood has championed lifting travel restrictions to Cuba. He testified at a hearing in September that current U.S.-Cuba policy "makes no sense today when Cuba poses no significant national security threat, and many Cold War travel restrictions to other parts of the world have already been abolished."

And he told the committee how he had successfully lobbied the Clinton administration in the 1990s to lift a similar travel ban against Lebanon, his grandparents' home country.

"We were able to persuade the Clinton administration, ultimately Secretary (of State Madeleine) Albright and President Clinton to lift the travel ban," he said. "And my point in using that illustration is how do we hurt Castro by inhibiting family members traveling there to visit their loved ones? How does that hurt him?"

In selecting Schapiro, Obama again tapped the well of experienced former Clinton administration officials. In the mid-1990s, she served as the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which oversees the financial-market trading of oil, corn and a range of other commodities.

Schapiro's experience at both the SEC and the CFTC is important, because a regulatory blueprint offered this year by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson proposes merging the two agencies.

The two agencies are now battling over who should regulate credit-default swaps — the complex and unregulated insurance-like products offered in the financial markets that helped trigger the September collapse of and government intervention in American International Group, one of the world's largest insurers.

(Lesley Clark contributed to this article.)

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