Washington Insider
Action Still Possible and Needed on Many Trucker Issues

Paul D. Cullen, Jr.
The Cullen Law Firm

As this Congressional session winds down, many important issues are likely to slip out of sight as many lawmakers do their best to focus voters on Washington scandals rather than needed changes.

Despite more than six years of promises for campaign finance reform, current efforts to move the legislation are likely to be too little, too late. In early August, the House pushed through sweeping changes in campaign finance laws, but the Senate is not expected to act on a companion bill. The current system heavily favors incumbents. Lawmakers know that. But they also know this isn't an issue voters get worked up about.

The result, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, year-end figures for 1997 show $1.17 billion was spent to influence Washington issues that year. That figure includes compensation for nearly 15,000 lobbyists. Transportation issues were fourth on the list of most heavily lobbied issues in 1997.

Even though the massive highway reauthorization bill has already been passed and signed into law, the debate over some of its provisions and efforts to modify those provisions continues.

U.S. Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho is working to allow his home state to boost permissible interstate weight limits to 129,000 pounds. This would require a change in federal law. Quite likely, if weight limits were increased in Idaho, they would be in other states soon after. Sources close to the issue say the strategy was to introduce the measure in the highway appropriations bill. At the last minute the amendment was withdrawn.

Another interesting development at the same hearing involved the FHWA's Office of Motor Carriers (OMC). Rep. Frank Wolfe of Virginia had introduced an amendment to transfer the entire agency from FHWA to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The amendment came as a total surprise since no public discussion, hearings, etc. had ever taken place. The OMC was created in the late 1980s to give the trucking industry more visibility within DOT similar to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). While the OMC is almost always heavier on enforcement than advocacy of trucking issues, any thought of advocacy would go out the window if the agency were moved to NHTSA. The Wolfe amendment was withdrawn at the committee same hearing.

While taxes are likely to be a hot debate topic, truckers could benefit from a well-focused effort. Unfortunately, an increased deductible amount for medical premiums paid by the self-employed is hung up in a much larger bill that isn't expected to move until next year, but there is great news on tolls. Rep. Phil English of PA has introduced HR 4466 to eliminate the pilot project for tolls on the interstates. The bill has two co-sponsors, so far, it needs many more.

On the legislative/regulatory front, one issue that continues to cry out for action from Washington is the chronic and growing shortage of available parking and rest areas. So far, all lawmakers have been able to come up with as a solution is more study on the problem. Further studies will only delay action on real solutions and this is the message that lawmakers need to hear. In December, DOT will hold its second "Safety Summit" for truckers. The shortage of parking places will be a significant part of this safety initiative. OOIDA will be there to answer questions and put urgency in this issue.

The latest word on proposed changes to the hours-of-service regulations is that a rulemaking will be out this fall proposing changes to the 60-year-old rules truckers now are required to comply with. Sources at the FHWA say the rules will be based on sound science to the extent possible with a change of focus from hours worked to hours available for rest.

Once the proposal is published, truckers and other interested parties could have up to 120 days to comment. Those comments would then be digested with final rules announced in late 1999 or 2000. LL