Washington Insider
Congress passes new national motor carrier safety administration

In a move to coordinate the final passage of legislation that would create a new national motor carrier safety administration, the House and Senate worked out their differences and approved such a bill in the last days of its 1999 session.

The bill, entitled the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999, creates the new modal administration within the Department of Transportation beginning Jan. 1, 2000. The new administration was given a strong safety mandate, and more than double the enforcement funding than is currently available to the Office of Motor Carrier Safety to back it up.

Other highlights of the bill include:

-The disqualification of drivers found to be operating a commercial motor vehicle on a suspended or revoked license

-A mandate for the secretary of transportation to conduct a rulemaking to determine when a non-commercial motor vehicle violation or a combination of violations should disqualify someone from driving a commercial motor vehicle

-A requirement for states to report motor vehicle violations to the driver's home state of registration

-A proficiency examination on federal motor carrier safety regulations for new entrants

-Certification of motor carrier safety auditors

-24-hour staffing of the driver telephone hotline with individuals knowledgeable about federal motor carrier safety regulations and procedures

-A new regulation to require that a federal medical qualification certificate be made part of a commercial driver's license

-The implementation of the inspector general's recommendations for improving motor carrier safety

-The development of sufficient border staffing standards

-New penalties and the disqualification of foreign motor carriers found operating outside of the boundaries of commercial zones along the U. S./Mexican border

-The study of highway accident causation, and the increased focus on better collection of related data

-A study by the secretary of transportation to determine whether it is feasible that verified positive drug tests be reported to the state that issued the driver's CDL.

The provision that held up earlier passage of the Senate bill was one to eliminate the Single State Registration System (SSRS) and implement a national unified registry in its place. Currently, states collectively receive $95 million in annual revenue from the SSRS. Some senators objected to the fact that this proposal would have taken revenue away from their states. The unified registration proposal was stripped from the legislation to remove this controversy and allow the Senate to pass the bill by unanimous consent.

The legislative process seen by this bill was accomplished before the Senate had an opportunity to consider its original legislation. Ordinarily, the House and Senate will pass separate versions of legislation and come together in a conference committee to negotiate and eliminate the differences in their bills. One single bill is then sent back to both houses of Congress for final approval and then sent to the president for his signature.

In this instance, however, the House and Senate met in a kind of pre-conference allowing them to work out their differences before reintroducing the bill. If both houses of Congress pass the same version of a bill, as occurred here, there is no need for a conference committee, and the bill can be sent directly to the president.

Popular health insurance and meal tax deduction proposals fall victim to partisan politics
Two popular tax proposals among small business truckers were made part of a large Republican tax cut bill that was met by the president with his promised veto.

The 520-page Republican tax bill included a proposal for the full deductibility of the cost of health insurance for the self-employed and a proposal to allow for the 80-percent deductibility of business meal costs by the year 2007. (At present, it will phase in by 2008).

There was little negotiation between Congress and the president to work out a compromise, however. This became another situation where both sides drew a line in the sand believing their position was more politically popular. The republicans passed a tax cut package that they believed the public would embrace, and the president vetoed the bill believing that the loss in tax revenue could not be made up in cuts to federal programs without dipping into Social Security revenue.

It is still possible, however, that these proposals will come up before Congress next year.

Hours-of-Service Reform still ahead
Despite the public contemplation, speculation, and manipulation of rumors as to what will be the substance of the promised hours-of-service regulations, it is almost certain that any new regulations will be proposed by the new National Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Given the inevitable challenges to any form of the rule by one private party or another, it seems probable that the DOT will strengthen its hand by waiting to publish the rule under the banner of new, stronger motor carrier administration rather than the recently-orphaned OMCS. The best estimate would set the publishing date for the new hours-of-service regulations sometime early in the next year.