In a dramatic set of events, several top employees at the Office of Motor Carriers (OMC), including Associate Administrator George Reagle, were removed from their positions in an action that may very well set the stage for Congress' new attention to truck safety issues.
This upheaval at OMC was the result of a Department of Transportation (DOT) investigation, which concluded that several officials in the OMC illegally lobbied on issues before the U.S. Congress. Under department rules, DOT employees are prohibited from trying to influence the legislative process. The specific focus of the lobbying effort was the proposal of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) to bring the Office of Motor Carriers under the auspices of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The DOT's inspector general found that senior OMC officials violated such rules by actively soliciting private entities (state motor carrier associations among them) to lobby their lawmakers against the Wolf proposal. At a minimum, the inspector general's report suggests that such action violated the arm's-length relationship that regulators should have with the regulated community.
Replacing George Reagle is long-time transportation expert Julie Cirillo. Cirillo began her work in transportation immediately after her graduation in 1964 from Trinity College in Washington, DC, when she took a position in the Bureau of Federal Roads (the bureau that preceded FHWA). Her credentials on highway and traffic issues are significant; however, her approach to trucking issues is relatively unknown.
Rep. Wolf continues his focused crusade on truck safety.
The DOT IG's report on the OMC was simply more red meat for Rep. Wolf's allegations that the OMC and the motor carriers industry had developed too close of a relationship and that this had compromised OMC's oversight responsibilities for compliance with the Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.
Rep. Wolf's truck safety theme has been intensifying over the last year. He has stated that his interest in this subject area came with the driving his family and children did on Interstate 81 between their northern Virginia home and their college in Harrisonburg, VA. I-81 is a major trucking corridor in the east with significant truck and automobile traffic crowding this four-lane highway at most times of day.
Rep. Wolf held a trucking safety hearing in Harrisonburg in mid-January. During this meeting driver Michael Cooper invited the congressman to go for a ride in a truck to get a trucker's perspective on the road. Rep. Wolf later accepted a ride with John Taylor, a member of OOIDA's board of directors. Mr. Taylor has been driving a truck for more than 50 years, has an incomparable safety record, and happens to be a constituent of Rep. Wolf. On Jan. 24, Rep. Wolf and OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer hopped in John Taylor's cab for an hour-long ride from Winchester to Mt. Jackson, VA.
The congressman was very upbeat during the truck trip, and seemed to appreciate the unique perspective that OOIDA and its members bring to trucking issues. Since then, Rep. Wolf has invited OOIDA to testify before his Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation on Capitol Hill. OOIDA will participate on one of several panels in late February at a hearing on surface transportation safety. (See article and photos of the Wolf ride on page 18-19.)
What is this proposal of Rep. Wolf's and why is it controversial?
Rep. Wolf's stated purpose behind his proposal is to put OMC authority into the hands of the regulators at NHTSA who are more concerned with safety issues. This proposal drew opposition not just from the motor carrier industry, but from Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-PA) as well. The essence of this dispute on Capitol Hill between the two lawmakers is a turf battle over who controls the transportation policy agenda in Congress. Both Rep. Shuster's and Rep. Wolf's committees have a significant effect on transportation policy in our country.
The difference between their two committees is the difference between deciding that you need to buy something, and then deciding how much you want to spend. Rep. Shuster's committee decides which federal transportation programs will be authorized and how much funding each program should get. Rep. Wolf's committee then decides how many federal dollars will or will not be spent on each program.
Even though the authorizing committee is purported to be the committee with all of the authority to create federal programs, the appropriations committee wields a great deal of power through its spending discretion over federal programs. The level of funding a program receives can determine whether that program will be effective or not. For example, Rep. Shuster's committee could authorize a program, and then Rep. Wolf's committee could effectively kill the program by refusing to appropriate funding for it.
So how could Rep. Wolf propose to move the OMC to NHTSA if all he controls is the purse strings for the DOT's budget? Rep. Wolf's proposal was to take all of the funding dedicated to the OMC and place it into the subsection of the funding bill that funded NHTSA. This would have given NHTSA control over the disbursement of OMC funding and therefore control over the OMC.
Rep. Shuster understood this proposal to be an end-run around his committee's prerogative to legislate such substantive changes in federal transportation programs. Rep. Wolf's initiative was then stripped out of the transportation spending bill before it passed last year. Rep. Wolf has promised to revisit the issue this year, as have both the House and Senate transportation authorizing committees.
Legislation to prohibit new toll roads introduced in Congress
Rep. Phil English (R-PA) is once again introducing legislation to stop the addition of new tolls on the interstate highway system. This legislation will repeal the section of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) that authorized three pilot programs to put new tolls on interstate highways. OOIDA is the first group to endorse this legislation, and continues to encourage all interested members of the public to call or write their representative to request that he or she support this legislation and become a co-sponsor. LL