Washington Insider
Highway bill: Going, going, gone?

Rod Nofziger
OOIDA Government
Relations Representative

Legislation to keep transportation funding flowing had to be rushed to an airplane Sept. 30 and flown to Florida, where President Bush was preparing for his first debate with Sen. Kerry, so that the president could sign it to beat a midnight deadline.

The deadline race was necessary because Congress did not approve the legislation, House Resolution 5183, until the afternoon of Sept. 30 — which was one year after the highway bill had expired. Had Bush not signed the bill, federal surface transportation programs would have stopped.

With the president’s signature, HR 5183 became the sixth short-term extension of programs that were to be funded by the six-year surface transportation reauthorization legislation, aka the highway bill. Similar to the first five actions extending the original Sept. 30, 2003, deadline, the legislation signed this September kept money flowing to highway and related transportation programs and kept thousands of government transportation employees on the job.

This legislation also contained a provision that took the decision of whether or not to go back to the old hours-of-service regulations out of the hands of the courts. The provision gives the Department of Transportation and FMCSA a year to come up with another new hours-of-service rule. They have until Sept. 30, 2005, to figure out what they are going to do.

The current extension of the highway bill allows funding for an additional eight months. This effectively gives Congress until May 31, 2005, to complete a six-year highway bill. As it currently stands, the House and Senate are in conference trying to reconcile their versions of the highway bill — HR 3550 and S 1072.

Progress on getting a “conference report” that will satisfy the majority of lawmakers on the conference committee has been bogged down by disagreements on the bill’s overall price tag and how federal Highway Trust Fund money is to be allocated to each state. With elections looming on the horizon, many of the involved lawmakers are focusing their efforts on playing the blame game for why a highway bill is yet to be signed into law.

Rep. Don Young, R-AK, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has pointed out that even with the short extension in place, lawmakers could still pass a highway bill this year during the “lame duck” session of Congress that will take place after elections. However, few people in Washington are holding out hope that will happen. If the highway bill is not finished during the lame duck session, which begins Nov. 15, the process starts all over again with the new Congress in 2005.

As you may remember from school, Congress meets in two-year sessions. At the end of each two-year session, there are elections for all members of the House and about one third of the Senate — senators have staggered, six-year terms. In January, following the House elections, both chambers reconvene to begin a new congressional session. The legislative slate is wiped clean and any pending bills get tossed into the congressional trash bin.

If the highway bill is not finished in the current 108th Session of Congress, the House and Senate will have to reintroduce their versions of the legislation during the 109th session next year. In the past year, we have referred to these bills as HR 3550 and S 1072. Those numbers will no longer apply in the new congressional session. The new versions will be named depending on how many bills have been filed before them.

With the reintroduction of these bills, much of the processes that have previously occurred will be repeated. There will be hearings on various portions of the bills, committee meetings to amend the bills and a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences in bills.

In other words, there will be new opportunities to get provisions into the legislation that will help professional truckers. However, those who seek to expand interstate tolling, free up Mexican trucks, allow more LCVs, etc., will also have another crack at getting their wish lists written into law.

Consequently, writing and calling your lawmakers will continue to be crucial. Many truckers and their families have already been contacting their representatives and senators. Though the responses from lawmakers’ offices can at times be frustrating, persistence really can pay off. As someone who is in frequent contact with congressional staff, I regularly hear about how truckers from their home districts or states are causing them to focus more on issues such as fuel prices, tolls and truck parking.

If the highway bill has to be hammered out next year, letting your elected officials know of your concerns and interests will be as important as ever.

The Olver Amendment
While the House was debating the Transportation-Treasury appropriations bill for fiscal year 2005 last month, a positive step was taken toward ensuring that unsafe foreign trucks are kept off our nation’s highways. Rep. John Olver, D-MA, offered an amendment that would require foreign trucks operating in the United States to meet the same safety, certification and labeling standards as domestic-based trucks.

The Olver Amendment helps to uniformly enforce U.S. safety laws by preventing the DOT from granting a two-year waiver to Mexican and Canadian trucks that do not meet U.S. safety standards, essentially requiring that all truckers operating in the United States play by the same rules.

On fairly short notice, truckers across the country rallied and called into the offices of their elected officials to voice support for the amendment. Despite heated opposition from some congressmen and the Bush administration, the amendment passed by a huge victory of 339 votes to 70.

To be enacted into law, the Olver Amendment must still get into the conference report for the 2005 transportation-treasury appropriations bill.

The Senate did not take up its version of the legislation before recessing prior to elections, so it will probably be rolled together with other unfinished business into one big omnibus appropriations bill during the impending post-election lame duck session.