The mood in Washington since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 is grim, but determined. Whereas many of our leaders have encouraged us to go back to business and our normal routines, it is advice they cannot fully take themselves. Their job in Washington is to focus on these tragedies and respond to the needs of the country in their aftermath.
Ever since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, every issue discussed and debated on Capitol Hill has been affected by the focus on several new priorities. These include the investigation of the attacks, the preparation for war, the development of better “homeland” security, providing federal relief for the victims of the attacks, and the creation of new tax breaks or federal spending to keep the economy moving. These goals will have varying effects on issues important to truckers.
The economy was widely thought to be in a gradual slowdown for the past several months. Truckers predicted this state of the economy months ago when freight levels dropped. The events of Sept. 11 have forced the rest of the country to confront this fact. Immediate in the minds of lawmakers are those businesses directly affected by the terrorist attacks – the airlines, tourism and those businesses physically damaged or destroyed in the attacks. Airlines received so much attention because the federal government shut them down and they quickly cut more than 100,000 jobs.
Drawing attention to the woes of the trucking industry is more difficult. The reliance on trucks in our economy is less understood by the general public. The average person (and lawmaker) does not connect the truck on the highway with the goods they want and expect to be on store shelves. Compared to job cuts by the airlines, twice as many jobs may have been lost in the trucking industry during the past two years. These trucking jobs, however, were lost by small businesses over several months. The airlines each cut 10,000 to 20,000 jobs at a time during a one-week period.
The problems of the airlines may have a public relations advantage, but that does not necessarily mean the economic stimulus package will bypass the trucking industry. One old idea that has found new bipartisan support is the 100 percent tax deductibility of business meals. This idea has new life for the purpose of boosting the sagging restaurant/hotel industry, but it also would apply to the trucking industry.
The initial negotiations of a stimulus package focused on the same issues that surrounded proposals to raise the minimum wage in the past two years. Democrats would like to raise the minimum wage and Republicans would like to pass more tax cuts for businesses. The focus of this debate is how much money the federal government is willing to spend.
Before Sept. 11, the budget debate centered on keeping spending below tax revenues. Now both parties agree on the need to put that debate aside. Both parties expect the need for deficit spending to prepare for war and keep the economy going.
This autumn would be an appropriate time for Congress to consider the mandatory fuel surcharge bill initiated by OOIDA and sponsored by Reps. Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). With twice the number of jobs lost in trucking as compared to the airlines, the loss of productivity due to increased security inspections and traffic delays, and the need for a healthy trucking industry during wartime, there are good arguments that this help is needed now more than ever.
The American people already are paying for the high cost of fuel, and American truckers have been picking up that tab. The fuel surcharge bill would simply share those increased costs fairly among shippers who benefit from the service truckers provide.
Homeland security and trucking
One of the first security issues raised after Sept. 11 was the ease in which suspects who may have links to the terrorists obtained hazardous material trucking permits. In a letter to Tom Ridge, President George W. Bush’s Director of Homeland Security, OOIDA President Jim Johnston wrote that this problem raises several other important security issues. The aggressive recruitment of drivers from other countries and the ease at which they can obtain a CDL should raise red flags to our security experts.
One example of this problem is the scandal in Illinois where many foreign nationals simply bought CDLs from state officials. Another example is the conviction this spring of two Australians in Little Rock, AR, for helping foreigners falsify immigration documents to enter this country for trucking jobs. Not only do such actions violate the law, they make it easier for anyone to come into the country, no matter what their motives. OOIDA is hopeful that the federal government will give its attention to this important national security and public safety issue. (See article on page 24 of this issue.)
NAFTA: Mexican truck issue unresolved
At press time, no further progress had been made on the opening of the border to Mexican trucks. The House of Representatives has passed a one-year ban on Mexican carriers registering with the Department of Transportation to operate in the United States. The U.S. Senate passed a thorough and thoughtful list of conditions that Mexican carriers and U.S. border enforcement personnel must meet before the border can be opened. Neither of these bills have become law. The two houses of Congress must meet to work out a compromise between these positions. Both of these positions have been praised by those who do not believe we are ready to open the border. On the other side of the issue, President Bush, who would like to open the border as soon as possible, has threatened to veto either of these provisions.
Before Congress’ August recess, the two sides promised to resume their battle over the border in the fall. In the first weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, however, Congress closed ranks impressively to show the world we have a united country. Partisan issues were put aside while the government responded to needs of Americans affected by the attacks. In this atmosphere, it seemed possible that volatile issues such as the opening of the border would be put on the back burner and not resolved.
On the other hand, the terrorist attacks demonstrated the vigilance we must have at our borders. A strong argument can be made that our Mexico border policy is not just a public safety and trade issue, but also a national security issue. Who knows how many people and what kind of materials may be brought into our country if our border is not secure? These issues may be the key to dampening the eagerness of the president and others to open the border. This is one issue that will not be viewed the same way as it was before Sept. 11.