Washington DC getting chillier by the day

Oct. 1, 2009
JUST IN case anyone missed it, relations have become quite strained between industry and our elected officials and bureaucrats in Washington DC

JUST IN case anyone missed it, relations have become quite strained between industry and our elected officials and bureaucrats in Washington DC. The frosty tone along the Potomac River seems likely to get much worse in the coming months.

Gone is the cordial attitude that made it easier for industry and government officials to reach consensus on important legislative and regulatory actions. It is being replaced with growing hostility and an attitude that industry should have little, if any, input in the legislative and regulatory processes.

Many of the federal departments and the officials that run them are coming under intense pressure to cut whatever ties they might have with industry. This certainly seems to be the case at the Department of Transportation (DOT) and its agencies.

At DOT, bureaucrats and even Obama Administration appointees have faced some vicious attacks from anti-truck elements in the liberal left. For instance, Anne Ferro, the new Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, was pilloried in an ambush editorial from the New York Times on the morning of her Senate confirmation hearing.

The main point of the editorial was that Ferro shouldn't be appointed to FMCSA because she was nothing more than a trucking industry insider. The editorial writer — probably shilling for the Teamsters-reached that conclusion simply because Ferro was president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association after spending six years as chief of Maryland's motor vehicle agency.

Officials at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) have been under unrelenting attack from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure since the beginning of this year. The PHMSA attacks were initiated by committee chairman Rep James Oberstar D-MN and the committee staffers.

In the most recent assault, Oberstar charged that complacency and neglect permeate PHMSA's culture, and the agency has become misguided in its mission. PHMSA has failed to maintain an arms-length relationship with industry and was acting more like a customer-service agency than a regulator. PHMSA officials were chastised simply for communicating with the businesses they regulate.

In a more onerous development, PHMSA bureaucrats deemed too cozy with industry reportedly are being exiled outside the Washington Beltway. Ted Willke, PHMSA associate administrator, reportedly has been reassigned to a post in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Bob Richard, PHMSA deputy associate administrator, apparently was shipped off to a new position at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Virginia. Richard also no longer will serve as chairman of the United Nations sub-committee of experts on the transport of dangerous goods.

All of this is chilling news for tank truck fleets and the trucking industry in general. Lack of communication and an adversarial attitude between the regulators and the regulated will be bad for everyone. It has happened before.

Some of the worst examples could be seen during the failed presidency of Jimmy Carter. Topping the list would have to be the antilock braking mandate that was pushed through by Joan Claybrook, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Claybrook refused to listen to warnings from heavy-duty truck manufacturers about the ability of late 1970s-era technology to function reliably in the trucking environment. Truck fleets also reported that the electronic components in the computerized system were unrealiable. Claybrook acknowledged during a 1978 Senate hearing that NHTSA had pushed the “state of the art” in mandating antilock brakes on trucks. However, she refused to back down even when brake system failures began causing accidents in growing numbers.

It took the intervention of the federal appellate courts to stop the regulatory debacle. The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals said NHTSA failed to adequately test a controversial computerized anti-wheel lock device that manufacturers said was needed to meet the performance requirements of FMVSS 121. The justices went on to say that NHTSA had a “heavy responsibility…to ascertain with reasonable probability that its regulations do not produce a more dangerous highway environment than that which existed prior to the government intervention. Failure to conduct more intensive testing of the trucks and tractor-trailers certified under the standard was not only unreasonable, but, also, a legal abuse of NHTSA's discretion.”

It is scary to think we could be seeing a return to that regulatory environment. No one would benefit from that kind of development.

We've seen in recent years just how beneficial it can be when the regulators and industry work together. From the 1980s until now, cooperation and dialogue have helped craft good regulations that benefitted government, industry, and the general public. Examples include today's antilock braking technology that truly does make commercial trucks safer, the cargo tank design and maintenance regulations, cargo tank rollover awareness programs, driver hours of service, and very low emission diesel engines and fuel.

Cooperation on those regulations was good government, and it did not turn bureaucrats into patsies or lapdogs of industry as has been alleged by the liberal left. We have to hope that commonsense finally prevails.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.