Lawmakers rally together to fix highway bill for small-business truckers

By Jami Jones, Land Line managing editor | 11/5/2015

Some tricky language included in the House version of the highway bill has prompted House lawmakers to work together to protect small-business truckers as the bill goes forward.

In the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015, Section 5224 seeks to protect shippers, receivers and brokers from using motor carriers that do not have a poor safety rating. The language prevents litigation against entities hiring motor carriers with “satisfactory” safety fitness determinations if that motor carrier happens to be involved in a crash while hauling the client’s freight.

The problem with the language as written is that of the vast majority of trucking companies, upward of 96 percent remain “unrated” by the FMCSA.

Championed by Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., a fix to the legislation was offered in the form of an amendment that would have changed the language to include “unrated” motor carriers.

“I rise … to offer an amendment that is very technical in nature. But it is one that is very, very important to many thousands of the smallest companies in the trucking industry,” Duncan said in offering his amendment to the highway bill on Wednesday, Nov. 4.

“According to the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, OOIDA, without this amendment we will be creating an incentive not to use small carriers, putting hundreds of thousands of truck drivers out of business due to no fault of their own. Without this change we will hurt small mom and pop trucking businesses and drive up the cost of shipping goods for everyone,” Duncan said.

“If we do not make this part of the bill, thousands of small companies and mom and pop operators who have never had a wreck or had a violation would lose business just because FMCSA has not had the sufficient time and staff to rate them.”

Once it became clear that the amendment would not fully address the issues for small business, Duncan opted to withdraw it.

In withdrawing his amendment, Duncan said he was given assurances by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and Ranking Member Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., that they would work to fix the language in the conference committee with the Senate.

Simply put, when the House and Senate representatives get together to reconcile the differences in the two different highway bills passed by each chamber, they will make sure the well-intentioned, but incomplete language did not inadvertently harm small-business truckers.

As an added bit in the arsenal for the fix, Duncan was appointed to the conference committee for the House. So he will be in future meetings when this language is discussed.

Following his withdrawal, Duncan told Land Line via email after consideration of the amendment that he was not done making sure this language gets fixed.

“Tonight I went to the House floor with intention of offering an amendment that would address some language in the base bill that could be harmful to small and independent trucking companies,” Duncan told Land Line via an emailed statement.

“However, when Chairman Shuster and Ranking Member DeFazio assured me that they would work with me to rectify the situation in conference, I agreed to withdraw my amendment at their request,” Duncan said.

“I feel it would have been a big mistake to refuse such an unusual and generous offer. This could have alienated the two key members who can address this problem in the conference.”

Truckers can be certain this is not the end of Duncan’s involvement in rectifying the matter. He just seized an opportunity to make all necessary adjustments to the language to fully protect safe small-business trucking companies.

“I feel so strongly about this I actually spoke twice on the House floor today to emphasize and explain the importance of small and independent trucking companies in our economy,” Duncan said.

“Rest assured, I will continue to work to correct this language so that the small and independent truck companies that are the backbone of our economy will continue to thrive.”

OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said that the Association understands full well the need to take this particular highway bill language back to the House Transportation leadership because the amendment Duncan was offering couldn’t fully address all concerns with the language.

“We appreciate that they are working to protect small-business truckers and make this language right,” Spencer said. “It’s encouraging that Congressman Duncan along with the members of the House Transportation Leadership are taking this matter so seriously. That said, if it can’t be completely fixed in committee, there’s really no choice but to pull the provision altogether. Otherwise, leaving it in would be devastating to the small-business truckers who operate safely every day.”

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