by Dick Larsen, senior editor
Rep. Mac Collins sidles up to a small booth inside Café 74 near Peachtree City, GA, looking out at big rigs whose drivers have come to appreciate the likes of homemade biscuits, slaw dogs and country-cured ham.
His wife, Julie, sits nearby, waiting for a late-afternoon appearance at an elementary school after a long day of campaigning with her husband via helicopter across the state.
A yellow menu declares, “Café 74 Restaurant has quickly become a home away from home for many hard-working truck drivers and road weary travelers. The hamburgers are still hand-pattied fresh daily, the slaw and potato salad is prepared in our store and the cobblers are made from our own recipes and served piping hot.”
In other words, the place appreciates truck drivers — it’s the “real deal” – and so is the congressman.
“Let me tell you how I got into the trucking business,” Collins begins. “I graduated from high school in 1962. My daddy had a small business making concrete pipe. The only equipment he had was a flatbed dump truck and a cement mixer – well, I eventually talked him into making concrete septic tanks, and of course, you had to have a truck. I drove that truck when I was 15 years old; I didn’t even have a driver’s license.
“Then we got into the concrete and sand gravel hauling business and had to have more trucks, then a tractor-trailer. Well, I guess you can say I’ve been a fool for trucks ever since.”
Political beginnings, current focus
Collins recalls the early ’50s in his hometown of Flovilla, GA, — a place that was “just a wide spot by the road with 240 people — if you blinked, you missed it.”
“My mother, Bessie, and a neighbor both ran for and won a seat on the City Council. I was too small to understand what she was doin’, but Momma would go to the City Council meeting on Saturday night, and at the breakfast table the next morning she’d tell Daddy about what was goin’ on.”
That’s when young Mac began to discover he liked being on the inside track.
He ran for the Butts County Commission three times before he won in 1976 as a Democrat. In 1984, he ran for the state Senate as a Republican, but was defeated. Friends said he would have won as a Democrat — Collins agrees.
He then ran and lost again in 1986. But finally, in 1988, he made a third try for the state Senate and won.
In 1992, attracted by the Republican promise of lower taxes, less government and reduced spending, Collins campaigned for Congress and won. He has served on the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Select Intelligence Committee.
A loss in his current race, for the U.S. Senate, though, means “it’s all over,” the congressman admits. If that happens, he’ll lose his seat in the House and won’t be able to run for public office for another two years.
But he figures it’s worth the effort.
“I’ve had some success in the House Ways and Means Committee, and I want to take all that hard work and transfer it to the Senate,” Collins said. “You just have more leverage in the Senate. In the House, you always have to deal with committees, and there’s very little you can do on the House floor. The Senate rules are more flexible — they’re just different.”
And as for committee assignments — “You always have to go for the power, so I’d pick the Finance Committee,” he says with a hardy chuckle. “I would also like to be on the Agriculture Committee.”
No matter how things develop, Collins seems at ease with the possibility of returning to the family trucking business and doting on his 11 grandchildren, for whom he had a bit of advice.
“I wouldn’t advise any of my grandchildren not to be a truck driver,” Collins said. “I would tell them to learn everything they can and wait until they’re mature enough to drive a truck. Then I’d tell them to buy a truck, then another one and another after that. Trucking is a good business — you have to deal with a lot of regulations, but they’re mostly for your own safety.”
While Collins doesn’t quarrel with the need for safety-related regulations, he’s been tussling with the Environmental Protection Agency for years. The issue is what the congressman believes is the agency’s unwise decision to move up and set in stone the date by which trucks must comply with stricter pollution requirements.
According to Collins, EPA decided to “regulate” in 1998 by using litigation that required the manufacturers of diesel engines to meet drastically stricter emission standards 15 months earlier than expected — October 2002 instead of Jan. 1, 2004 — or face heavy fines.
“I, along with several of my colleagues in the House, suggested that the EPA look at moving the requirement date to the original date of 2004 … to allow diesel manufacturers to test their new technology more extensively in the marketplace, build confidence in the consumer, and put more product with cleaner air technology on the market, with a better benefit to air quality.”
But that didn’t happen. Instead, EPA stuck with the 2002 deadline and insisted there would be no rush to pre-buy older trucks.
But by July 2002, it was evident that new, proven diesel engine technology would not be available from all manufacturers, and there was, in fact, an “extraordinary” pre-buy of existing diesel engine equipment, Collins says.
The irony was clear — an increased number of older trucks ended up traveling American highways as a result of EPA’s action — just the opposite of what the agency intended.
Orders in February 2002 rose 67 percent above the February 2001 levels, and orders for March of 2002 rose 167.9 percent over the previous March levels, Collins says.
“I asked Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and her senior staff … to work with the diesel engine manufacturers, who had stated as a whole they would not be able to meet the emissions deadline that was accelerated from 2004 to 2002 in the courts …
“In my discussions with Ms. Whitman, we agreed that the end user and consumer should not be penalized with higher prices for products, but the engine manufacturers who could not meet standards should pay the imposed fines and penalties.”
Nevertheless, EPA moved ahead, and as a new round of regulation approaches, Collins says, he fears a repeat of 2002. Moreover, he just doesn’t trust the EPA anymore.
“I don’t like to say that about my government, because I’m part of it too. But if you can’t trust your government to work through a problem, well that becomes an even bigger problem.”
The bigger problem: 2007
Most recently, Collins has come to expect a situation Yogi Berra would describe as, “Déja vu, all over again” — namely, yet another “pre-buy” boom resulting from diesel fuel regulations due in 2007.
“I simply do not want to see a repeat of the errors committed in 2002 which led to the pre-buy of non-compliant engines. But if you run this thing up to the wire and don’t give consumers confidence, there’s going to be a lot of pre-buy — and in fact, it’s already going on.”
Collins recently attended the March Emissions Summit in Fort Lauderdale, FL, to argue for better communication between government and the trucking industry. He also favors incentives such as accelerated depreciation or tax benefits to encourage the purchase of trucks with cleaner engines.
“We’re not asking to change the regulation,” Collins says. “But the end user should not have to pay the penalty (for increased costs due to regulation).”
Meanwhile, Collins and 19 other House Republicans asked the General Accounting Office to study the issue of financial aid to trucking companies.
“We are recommending that EPA consider what additional opportunities it has … convening another independent review panel to assess progress or consider options — such as financial incentives or other means,” GAO said.
However, the report drew criticism from the environmental community, which said legislators with trucking interests should not cozy up to either the EPA or the GAO.
For his part, Collins insists manufacturers must have the time to road test new engines to prove they are reliable and fuel-efficient. And as someone who understands the trucking business, he thinks his input is valuable.
“Legislators look at trucks just like the general public does,” Collins says. “They’re big and frightening, and other motorists don’t know how to really appreciate and respect a truck. They think a driver can stop that truck in a much shorter period than they really can. And others (in government) just think of trucks as a way of gaining cash flow, additional taxes and fines.”
Other political concerns
Collins was the only Republican in Georgia to vote for the recent House Transportation Highway bill, known as TEA-LU. He would support adding a provision to the bill calling for a surcharge to help truckers with sudden fuel price hikes.
However, truckers will need to lobby their representatives and stress the importance of the effect on them of rapidly rising fuel prices.
Meanwhile, Collins says drivers face challenges posed by the possible opening of U.S. highways to Mexican drivers. The U.S. Supreme Court is to decide soon on President Bush’s request to permit Mexican drivers to operate beyond U.S. border commercial zones.
The worry is that American companies will hire Mexican drivers at low pay rates — resulting in a kind of outsourcing in reverse.
“That could easily happen,” Collins says, adding that Mexican President Vicente Fox would like to see American dollars coming to Mexico.
How to approach Congress
As drivers across the nation become more involved by talking with staffers in congressional offices, or in some cases, actually achieving face-to-face meetings with their representatives, it’s important to follow a few simple rules to be effective, Collins says.
“Drivers need to contact their state and federal legislators, and it’s important to be polite, reasonable and not demanding. Don’t threaten by saying, ‘I voted for you, and I want this or that’ — rather, tell the person how (a regulation or situation) affects you and your family.”
As Land Line’s conversation comes to an end, Collins ventures outside on a warm spring day to admire the big rigs that rest behind Café 74 amid a background of pine trees, yellow forsythia bushes and clusters of iris, poppies and tulips.
“The (Senate) race is going well,” he says. “We’ve got good grassroots support, and we hold up very well when it comes to policy.”
Dick Larsen can be reached at email@example.com. Photos by Mark H. Reddig, Land Line