Washington Insider
A new Congress, a new administration

Congressman Bud Shuster retires
Barely hours into his 15th term representing Pennsylvania's 9th Congressional District, Representative Bud Shuster decided to retire effective at the end of January. He cited unspecified recent health scares and the realization that he had reached the pinnacle of his congressional career as reasons for his departure from Congress. Removed from the chairmanship of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee by a term limit rule for committee chairs, Rep. Shuster stood the prospect of being in a Congress over whose issues he would not be able to wield the kind of influence to which he had become accustomed. The new chairman of the committee is Rep. Don Young from Alaska.

Although removed as chairman of the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Shuster was preparing to become chairman of that committee's Ground Transportation Subcommittee. That committee, having jurisdiction over all highway and trucking issues, is likely to be chaired by Rep. John "Jimmy" Duncan from Tennessee. Rep. Duncan was the chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee in the last Congress and is the next senior member in a position to fill this position.

Democrat chosen for Secretary of Transportation

Former California Congressman Norm Mineta was named by President George W. Bush to be his cabinet's Secretary of Transportation. For most of the last year, Mineta had been Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration. This is the first time that a cabinet secretary for one president will be a cabinet secretary for the next president of a different party.

Mineta was chairman of the House's Public Works and Transportation Committee for four years. His tenure on that committee gave him a great deal of experience with transportation and trucking issues.

In 1999, Mineta was appointed by the DOT to head up an informal roundtable to gather information on truck safety issues. During the congressional hearings that lead to the creation of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act, Mineta presented several proposals based on the information gathered at this roundtable. Although not all of his proposals were adopted by Congress, Mineta's proposals were very thoughtful and represented as close to a consensus between the trucking industry and safety groups as could be imagined. There is every reason to believe that Mineta will bring this same thoughtful approach to his work as Secretary of Transportation.

While the trucking industry can expect a pragmatic approach to transportation issues from Mineta, the substance of the policy agenda that will come from Mineta and the Bush administration is uncertain. The Bush administration does not have many connections to the so-called safety groups such as Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH) and Parents against Tired Truckers (PATT), and therefore it may not have the same drive to push through burdensome regulations such as the current hours-of-service proposal. On the other hand, George W. Bush is very much in favor of moving forward to implement NAFTA and that may mean the opening of the border to more Mexican trucks will no longer be delayed. For now, the Bush transition team has projected no clear agenda on trucking issues.

HR4441 runs out of time

HR4441, The Motor Carrier Fuel Cost Equity Act, which would have imposed a mandatory fuel surcharge and pass-through to owner-operators, failed to pass the Senate as time ran out on the 106th Congress in December. One or perhaps two Senators held up the passage of HR4441 in the Senate. It is unclear who they were. Although the bill passed the House of Representatives by voice vote, without objection, its progress was stunted by a time crunch in the Senate. When the bill passed the House on Oct. 10, it looked as though there was at most one or two weeks left in the 106th Congress for the Senate to take it up. Because Congress had hoped to finish its work quickly, it only extended the length of its session by several days at a time. This meant there was never an opportunity for any committee in the Senate to hold hearings or markups on the bill. No one predicted that Congress would not close out its business until mid-December. Although the extra time allowed proponents of the bill to gather more support in the Senate, several procedural roadblocks hindered its progress.

A bill can pass the Senate without going through the committee process, but only if no Senator objects to it. OOIDA was told that there were a couple of Republican Senators who had put a "hold" on HR4441, thereby denying the bill the unanimity it needed to pass.

When a Senator wants to put a hold on a bill, he or she communicates that intention to the leader of their party in the Senate. In a frustrating quirk of Senate rules, the names of those Senators who put a hold on HR4441 were kept secret by majority leader Sen. Trent Lott. They did not reveal their hold publicly and neither did Sen. Lott. This secret was kept despite the repeated requests of OOIDA and the bill's Senate supporters for their names. Therefore OOIDA was unable to go to those Senators with the holds and educate them on the need for this legislation. Perhaps more troubling was that those Senators have avoided accountability to their constituents for their actions.

It should be noted in the end, however, that this situation was made worse by the time crunch factor. Holds on bills are easier to overcome when a bill has gone through the committee hearings and markup. As we saw, this lengthy process is not always available for legislation intended to provide emergency relief to constituents.

Mineta...a great deal of experience in transportation and trucking issues

Was the work on HR4441 a total loss?

This story of HR4441's fate might make you want to chuck your whole faith in the democratic process, but there were many important things gained this year by OOIDA and truckers who poured their efforts into this bill.

As Winston Churchill declared, "democracy is the worst possible form of government except all the others that have been tried." Although it can be a source of frustration in the short term, it is those who are in it for the long haul who achieve success. This system is the one we have to continue to work with if we want to keep black boxes out of the final hours-of-service rule, keep more Mexican trucks from coming into the U.S., and improve the tax deductibility of meals and health insurance costs. The work done to push HR4441 by OOIDA and every single person who made a phone call and wrote a letter to their representative and senators will help with these and other issues in the future.

More than several congressional and senatorial offices reported that they were flooded with telephone calls in support of HR4441. If they didn't before, they now know that there are many small-business truckers out there watching what they do.

These telephone calls and the letters written laid the groundwork for you to influence your elected officials. Only if you continue to call or write your representative and senators on important issues will you continue to have an effect on their decisions. Become a pen pal with them, call and get to know their transportation assistant. It is the only way that elected officials get to know what issues are important to truckers.

These representatives don't truck, don't hang out at the loading docks or truckstops, and don't get very much information on the trucking business from newspapers or television. When they do hear about trucks in the press, it is usually negative. If they do not get the straight story from you, they will not get it at all. The work to push HR4441 raised awareness on Capitol Hill of the passion of numbers of truckers across the country. This good work will provide a solid foundation for the important tasks that remain ahead.