“Trucking Industry Flails for a Legislative Fix to a Problem it Created”
By Heather Caygle
A single sentence missing from a massive government spending bill is making waves in the trucking industry, threatening to “unleash chaos” and roll back years of regulations governing how long truckers can be on the roads.
Tucked into the fiscal 2016 omnibus is language erecting additional hurdles federal regulators must overcome before enforcing controversial changes to trucker work hour’s rules that went into effect in 2013.
The problem is that the omnibus didn’t address what to do if the requirements aren’t met, which would mean rules governing how many hours a week truckers can drive will revert to what was in place more than a decade ago – a system that would mean less productive drivers and more error-prone driving logs, the industry says.
Now lawmakers are scrambling for a fix and fuming at the American Trucking Associations, the group many sources say drafted the legislative language and is responsible for the critical oversight that created this quandary in the first place.
“They messed up big time and now they want to write their own total fix. So they’re kind of in a tougher place,” said Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee. “The fix is being negotiated so it won’t be everything they want.”
The mishap over the language is causing a behind-the-scenes scramble and lawmakers are mulling trying to attach a fix to whatever must-pass legislation moves next, including possibly an FAA extension.
“Usually we like extensions to be clean. Whether there could be enough of a consensus around a fix to something that the appropriators–at the behest of ATA–screwed up, I don’t know,” DeFazio said.
The fight over the restart provision goes back years – the rule was finalized in 2011 but didn’t go into full effect until 2013. But the genesis of the latest controversy dates back to the winter of 2014.
At the behest of the trucking industry, that year’s omnibus spending bill included language putting on hold complicated rules governing the number of hours truckers could drive each week before the clock was “restarted.” The hold was to continue while DOT did a study looking at the effectiveness of the newer rules.
The trucking industry and its supporters on Capitol Hill wanted to build on that win by tucking language into the fiscal 2016 funding bill that added new, and some say insurmountable, requirements to the DOT study.
Several sources told POLITICO the new conditions, including a requirement that DOT examine how the 2013 regulations impacted a driver’s longevity, essentially rendered the federal study moot, no matter what the outcome.
But in their haste to slip the new requirements into the bill, supporters made a critical oversight: They left out a sentence stating that if the new requirements aren’t met, the hours of service restart regulations in place before the summer of 2013 are to go back into effect.
Now, as a result, trucking advocates say sans a legislative fix, the mishap could do significant damage to the industry, creating a ripple throughout the economy.
ATA spokesman Sean McNally said without congressional intervention, truckers would be forced to revert to “antiquated rules” pre-2003 that required drivers to do “rolling recaps” of their hours each week, which were “fraught with math errors and therefore noncompliance.”
“Bottom line: Eliminating the restart entirely would unleash chaos not just on the trucking industry, but on the law enforcement community as well, which is why ATA is looking for a bipartisan solution” McNally said.
“If the restart goes away entirely, drivers will likely revert back to working shorter, but more consecutive days, and the rolling recap – with its problematic math – would come back into play on a widespread basis,” McNally said.
But far from simply inserting a directive about which set of rules to use, several sources with knowledge of the negotiations said ATA is pushing for a fix that would ensure the rule that went into effect in 2013 remains overturned, essentially allowing drivers to operate upward of 80 hours per week.
McNally wouldn’t comment on the organization’s negotiating strategy, but a memo from ATA President Bill Graves last month shows the group is taking a hard-liner stance behind the scenes.
“This past Wednesday, the [ATA] Executive Committee voted to allow staff to pursue a potential negotiated settlement,” Graves wrote Feb. 12, “but did so with a very narrow range of acceptable options, and made it very clear that any outcome that fell outside the range would be unacceptable.”
While there are lots of fingers being pointed at ATA, an industry source said the group isn’t entirely at fault for the oversight. DOT would’ve had eyes on the language to provide technical assistance, and congressional appropriators had the final say in what went into the bill, the source observed.
Still, whatever solution lawmakers agree to, even if it meets ATA’s “acceptable options,” could have far-reaching consequences for trucking regulations down the road.
If Congress “attempts to fashion some kind of a truck driver hours-of-service rule, it’s really risky because at that point, they’re codifying the rule. And this is a rule that in 65 years has never been codified,” said Lane Kidd, director of the Trucking Alliance.
“It’s a very complicated issue and its one that, really, people’s eyes glaze over – but I think the greatest risk would be to codify language that would be very hard to amend down the road if the language is bad … because then you’ve removed the agency from any purview over hours of service whatsoever,” he added.
For now, at least, it seems Congress is in the mood to throw the trucking industry a life preserver.
“We’re back now to hours of service before George Bush and the industry is finding that somewhat unacceptable. It was unintentional, not well thought out, so I think this merits some congressional action,” DeFazio said.
But even if Congress does play ball, several lawmakers, Hill staffers and lobbyists said this is just the latest preventable trucking-related controversy to bubble up, and it’s because of ATA.
For instance, the trucking industry lost a fight to allow longer trucks on the interstate after enabling language was left out of the final fiscal 2016 spending bill – despite being included in both the House and Senate Appropriation Committees’ transportation funding proposals.
Separately, a trucking provision that would override rest and meal break rules in nearly two dozen states was tucked into the House’s FAA reauthorization bill despite a wall of opposition from Democrats and an unsuccessful attempt to attach the language to last year’s highway and transit law. DeFazio has predicted that provision alone would be enough to tank the legislation.
“It’s got the bill nose down in a steep dive,” DeFazio said, referencing the rest and meal break override language. “How many trucking provisions do you want to put into an FAA bill?”