Lawmakers turn to approps bills to change how FMCSA operates

By Jami Jones, Land Line managing editor | Friday, June 20, 2014

Acting at the behest of truckers who say that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration needs to make some changes, members of Congress have turned to a piece of legislation that rarely gets a lot of attention.

In June, the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations legislation – dubbed THUD – became the new battleground for lawmakers seeking to mandate action by FMCSA. With little hope of a new highway bill any time soon, this annual funding legislation presented at least some opportunity to get some legislation passed into law.

One June 10, the House version of the appropriations bill that funds the Department of Transportation passed. The Senate appeared to be poised to debate and hopefully pass its version of the legislation, but debate over how amendments to the bill would be considered and voted on derailed debate on the full bill on Thursday, June 19.

The appropriations bills (there are 12 in all) rarely get much attention outside of the Beltway until Congress fails to act. These bills fund each fiscal year of the federal government. The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

The last time all 12 appropriations bills were passed into law by Oct. 1 was 1996.

When Congress fails to pass the appropriations bills and send them to the president to be signed into law, that’s when government shutdowns start. Usually they are short-lived and restricted to shutting down things like the national parks and other “non-essential” programs.

This year, Congress was making full strides to get at least some of the approps bills passed. With all the buzz and action happening on it, some lawmakers saw a chance to mandate some changes at FMCSA.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, grabbed headlines when she presented an amendment during a committee markup of the appropriations bill. The amendment seeks to suspend the newest changes to the voluntary 34-hour restart provision. Her amendment does not extend driving time, on-duty time, or reduce the off-duty obligations of truck drivers.

The Collins amendment seeks to suspend the requirement that any voluntary restart provision include two 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. overnight periods and the restriction on using a restart only once every seven days.

What the amendment will do is suspend the overnight provisions and the restriction on using the restart once every seven days while the FMCSA conducts a comprehensive study – with input from the Office of Inspector General – to see if these changes are truly justified.

During committee debate of the amendment, many lawmakers saw the changes FMCSA made to the voluntary restart provision in 2013 as counterproductive to safety.

The amendment passed 21-9 in committee and became part of the Senate version of the transportation appropriations bill.

Shortly after the appropriations bill passed out of committee on June 7, with the Collins amendment rolled in, a Walmart truck collided on the New Jersey Turnpike with a limousine van carrying comedian Tracy Morgan and several others. One man died in the crash and four others were hospitalized. Criminal charges were filed against the driver.

What was a tragic accident turned into a three-ring media circus. Groups advocating for ever more regulations on truckers seized the opportunity to attack the Collins amendment.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., presented a countering amendment during the floor debate that would remove the suspensions of the overnight provisions and the one restart every seven days.

Collins defended the amendment during floor debate with others from the committee speaking in support of retaining the suspensions as presented in the amendment.

Shortly after, talks broke down between the Senate Democrats and Republicans on how many votes would be required to pass amendments into the appropriations bill. Consideration of the full appropriations bill ceased.

No clear timeline is currently available on when the Senate would begin considering the bill again.

The passed House version of the transportation funding bill committee report also takes aim at FMCSA.

While not part of the actual bill, lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee also handed out some additional marching orders for the FMCSA.

The committee directed FMCSA to implement the GAO recommendations to the Compliance, Safety, Accountability Program. The agency is to revise the program’s methodology to better account for data limitations that prevent meaningful comparisons of safety performance of motor carriers. The agency is also directed to conduct a formal analysis of what are the limitations in data used to arrive at scores and limitations of the scores themselves to identify unsafe motor carriers.

That analysis would be due 180 days after the transportation appropriations bill is signed into law.

The House also wants a study of the changes to the voluntary 34-hour restart provision. The House appropriations bill does not suspend the changes while the study is conducted.

Several things can happen, and for the time being it’s difficult to speculate what path the appropriations bill will take from here.

In order for anything like the Collins amendment to make it into law, once the House and Senate both pass the transportation appropriations bills – either as a standalone bill or as part of a package of appropriations bills – then two versions are hashed out in a conference committee. That committee has members of both the House and Senate who reconcile the differences between the two bills. That’s where amendments are ultimately kept or tossed.

After a final version is settled on by committee, it’s voted on again and sent to the president to be signed into law.

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