Washington Insider

Paul D. Cullen, Jr.
The Cullen Law Firm

It is tough to write a Washington Insider column when people have come to know just about as much about the "inside" of Washington as they can stand these days. Even more difficult is writing when, after passing the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), most of Congress thinks transportation issues are behind them for the year.

In reality (the place from where this column likes to report), however, there continues to be a great number of issues that are of interest to the small-business trucker. Congress is considering several bills, and the Department of Transportation is considering several regulatory issues, that affect small business truckers.

on capitol hill...

One piece of legislation that has developed during this Congress is designed to give local governments the right to enforce Federal Communication Commission (FCC) regulations pertaining to citizens band radios. This bill, introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) in the Senate and Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) in the House of Representatives, is a response to the problem of individuals who violate FCC regulations by boosting the power of their CB radios. Such tinkering with CB radios leads to interference with other nearby consumer electronics such as telephones, radios, VCRs, televisions and answering machines.

While the Federal Communications Commission is legally responsible for the enforcement of CB regulations, the agency claims it does not have the resources to enforce all of its regulations. Therefore, proponents of the bill suggest that local governments should be allowed to enforce these regulations. Although the corruption of CB communication is also a concern of truckdrivers who rely on CB radios, OOIDA is concerned that this bill puts few limits on the power of localities over owners of CB radios. The implications of this bill are unpredictable and potentially burdensome to truckers, especially those who drive through dozens of localities every day.

This bill is being pushed through without Congress holding a single committee hearing to examine the problem of CB tampering or the possible solutions. This bill passed the Senate when it was added to a very popular bill addressing the issue of telephone "slamming" (the fraudulent switching of a person's long distance phone company). The House of Representatives is now holding hearings on the telephone slamming issue, but the CB proposal has not yet been raised.

OOIDA has been working to make sure the House understands the opposition of truckdrivers to this proposal. In August, OOIDA presented to the members of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee a petition from hundreds of truckdrivers in opposition of the CB bill. We will be monitoring the progress of the bill to make sure that Congress knows that truckers oppose it.

One disappointing provision of the recently-passed TEA-21 is a pilot program that would allow several states to establish additional tolls on interstate highways. OOIDA's position has been that tolling is double taxation when truckdrivers have already paid for the highways through the fuel tax and into the highway trust fund which has an enormous unspent surplus.

Several congressmen, however, have taken immediate action to introduce a bill that would repeal this additional tolling. Rep. Phil English (R-PA) introduced HR 4466 which simply repeals the tolling provision from TEA-21. He has been joined by co-sponsors Rep. John E. Peterson (R-PA) and Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) who share a concern that TEA-21 will allow new tolling on Route I-80 in Pennsylvania.

Although this repeal is not likely to pass during this Congress, any telephone calls or letters that members of Congress get from their constituents in support of this bill and in opposition to tolling will help put a break on new tolling on the highways in the future.

In an effort to bring home a gift to voters in the upcoming election, the House of Representatives has passed a "Taxpayer Relief Act of 1998" designed to cut various taxes by more than $80 billion over the next five years by taking advantage of the first federal budget surplus in 29 years. This bill contains several provisions that are of particular interest to the small-business trucker. Most important is the provision that would allow the self-employed to deduct 100 percent of their health insurance premiums from their taxes starting in 1999. Also of interest is a provision that would allow small-business owners to deduct up to $25,000 of the cost of business-related equipment next year (the current provision would allow a deduction of $18,500 now, rising to $25,000 by the year 2003).

Other provisions that have popular support include a fix to the "marriage penalty" under the current tax code where married couples pay higher taxes than they would if they were single people. Additionally, this bill would allow senior citizens between ages 65 and 69 to earn more without a reduction in Social Security benefits.

Most of the individual components of this bill have the support of Congress, but it faces a rocky future in the Senate.

The protests of Democrats who oppose the bill focus on the fact that 98 percent of the projected budget surplus is made up of current payroll-tax contributions to the Social Security system. Their concern is that without cutting programs or raising other taxes, these tax cuts would be paid for by taking from Social Security. Democrats insist that Social Security needs all of the assets it can get to pay for the upcoming retirement of the "baby-boomers" early in the next century. On the other hand, Republican critics of the tax bill believe the proposed tax cuts are not deep enough.

If a tax bill is going to pass Congress this year it will likely be a smaller bill than the one currently proposed. Unfortunately, the provisions mentioned above are among the most costly of the current proposals and may be the least likely to survive any paring down of the entire tax cut bill.

On the subject of the transportation appropriations bill, one interesting proposal inserted into this bill by Chairman Frank Wolf is to move the Office of Motor Carriers from the Federal Highway Administration to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Rep. Wolf's office states that this proposal is meant to strengthen the focus of the OMC on highway safety. Interestingly, there has been no real public appeal for this proposal, and its eventual effects on the truck driving industry are uncertain. Much will depend on how such a move would be implemented by the Department of Transportation. LL