by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairwoman Deborah Hersman leads one of the few Washington agencies that reports to both the White House and Congress. But Hersman said having two masters is often the least of her concerns in an era when regulators are constrained in what they can do.
“It takes longer and longer to get regulations done,” said Hersman, a Democrat appointed by President Obama to chair the NTSB.
“The tide has almost turned,” she said of the difference between now and when she first came to Washington in the 1990s. “Before, there used to be a sense that people would go to the regulator if they wanted to get things now. Now it take so long, it’s almost faster to get a response if it’s a legislative issue.”
Despite the anti-regulation sentiment that has swept Washington, Hersman says the NTSB has largely been spared from criticisms that hound other executive agencies.
“There are certainly changes over time with how conducive the climate is, but in general, transportation safety is not a partisan issue,” she said. “The general public expects it is not going to get the short end of the stick.”
Hersman is hardly a partisan firebrand. Her first job in Washington was a college internship in the office of former Rep. Bob Wise (D-W.Va.). Before she landed that job, Hersman said she did not even know her political affiliation, despite working in a town that is often defined by it.
“I always wonder, if I interned for a Republican, would things have turned out differently?” she said.
Hersman worked her way through a few more internships and then went to work for Wise full-time after she graduated with a degree in political science and international studies from Virginia Tech University. She worked on Capitol Hill until 2004, when she was appointed to the NTSB.
She eventually became a staffer for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) chairman of the committee, praised Hersman in a statement to The Hill.
“Debbie has a great background – she has strong West Virginia ties and is a dedicated public servant,” Rockefeller said. “Recently, Debbie has led investigations into several major transportation accidents – and done so with great skill and care. She is a remarkable leader and an asset to the NTSB.”
As a member of the panel, and as its chairwoman, Hersman has gone to accident scenes to work NTSB investigations. She said one of the 19 crash sites she visited stands out.
“Lexington, Ky.,” she said, after a moment’s pause, when asked to name the accident she remembers most.
“My husband has family from the Lexington area,” she said. “I spent probably 10 Christmases in Lexington before the accident. The community and the families stand out in my mind.”
The accident was an Aug. 27, 2006, crash of a Delta Airlines regional flight between Lexington and Atlanta. The plane — a Bombardier Canadair Regional Jet — crashed as it attempted to take off on a runaway that was too short for liftoff. All 48 passengers and one pilot were killed.
Hersman also worked the August 2010 plane crash in Aleknagik, Alaska, that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). She said that accident was trying for her because she worked on committees that Stevens served on.
Hersman said that the NTSB often becomes the face of the federal government when accidents happen.
“The thing about Lexington, it’s not like Washington, D.C.,” she said. “That may be the first time they see what the federal government does, see what we do. They may never have heard of us.”
For citizens who are curious about spending in Washington this year, Hersman noted that her fewer-than-400-person agency spends lightly.
“We’re about 30 cents per citizen,” she said. “I think we provide a great service at a great value for the American public.”
Hersman’s term as chairwoman expires in July. She’s hopeful Obama will reappoint her, though she acknowledges she doesn’t have a lot of face time with him.
“I’m not his BFF,” she said. “I’m not a Cabinet [secretary], and this White House takes a hands-off approach to independent agencies. They’re committed to independent agencies being independent agencies. I don’t get direction. They committed from the first to being arm’s-length in a way that previous administrations haven’t.”
One of Hersman’s duties is to provide safety recommendations to regulators and the transportation industry.
“Congress directed us to make recommendations in the best interest of safety,” she said. “I look at it like we’re the rabbit out in front of the greyhounds.
“We’re the one to give them something to chase. It may take months or years to get where we need to be, but that doesn’t keep us from saying what needs to be said,” she said. “If you don’t like the recommendations, give us alternatives, but we’ve got to get people moving, because when we go to an accident, the status quo was obviously not working.”
NTSB issues recommendations to make transportation more safe, and suggestions on how specific accidents can be prevented from occurring again.
The latter set of recommendations not being followed is hard to swallow, Hersman said.
“It’s most frustrating to see another accident that could have been prevented if the recommendations had been enacted,” she said. “I understand sometimes recommendations are expensive or the technology is not there, but no one is satisfied to see another accident happen.”
Although it’s the nature of her job, Hersman said it’s still hard to see the loss of life when accidents happen.
“Each life is precious,” she said. “Whether it’s four lives [lost] or 400, each accident takes a toll.”
That notwithstanding, Hersman said she loves her job.
“I feel privileged to lead a great agency with a great mission,” she said.