Passing Zone

Highway Bill and The Sausage Factory

It's not a family-friendly flick or a Wes Craven slasher coming to a theater near you...

August 2, 2015

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'Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.' Image: National Hot Dog & Sausage Council


 

'Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.' Image: National Hot Dog & Sausage Council

'Highway Bill and The Sausage Factory’ is not a family-friendly flick or a Wes Craven slasher coming to a theater near you.

Okay, it will pay homage to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Spoiler alert: No squads of Boy Rangers will be racing to the rescue come September when this meat-grinding production starts filming on Capitol Hill.

That’s when transportation advocates in both chambers of Congress will yet again try to hammer out a long-term highway bill that can actually get passed by their badly fractured body.

It was the 19th-century nation-builder Otto von Bismarck who supposedly first cracked wise that lawmaking is uncomfortably akin to sausage-making, implying there's nothing pretty about the legislative process.

The Iron Duke only had to contend with a plethora of German princes, all the crowned heads of Europe and sundry other aggravations, like the rise of Socialism, to pass the laws he needed to unify Germany and stabilize Europe to his liking.

But the Junker prince would be baffled by dealing with a popularly elected national legislature. Especially one long gridlocked by partisan politics, not to mention sidetracked recently by the raw spectacle of intra-party warfare conducted right out in the open.

Against that corrosive backdrop, the show Congress will be putting on this fall-- and for the foreseeable future-- won't be an appetizing sight for anyone who figures all it takes to git 'er done is to, well, get things done.

No, sir, not going to happen. The thick-as-tar political stew bubbling on Capitol Hill in which trucking's sausage will be attempting to bob upstream will push it up against far more poisonous issues than whether or not to raise the federal tax on motor vehicle fuel. Even if that will be for the first time since way back in 1993. 

No matter what the trucking industry and other influential infrastructure stakeholders have said or will say, the power brokers of this Congress are convinced that they were not elected to raise taxes--- even when in this case we’re really truly talking about a user fee-- on individual Americans. 

Until that fundamental debate over how to fund the next long-term highway bill is resolved, you can bet your bottoming-out vehicle that more short-term funding extensions will be slapped in place by Congress every so many months. This year. Next year. And so on.

Yet if transportation leaders in the House and Senate could somehow and miraculously soon forge a breakthrough on that paralyzing issue, that would be just half the battle.

The resulting highway bill would still have to compete for what little time is left on this year's Congressional calendar with other red-hot pieces of legislation that are far more polarizing than any infrastructure measure could ever be.

As enumerated by The Hill reporter Jordain Carney in her recent ‘Floor Action’ blog post, highway funding will be but one of five fights waiting for Congress once it reconvenes on September 8.

"The rolling policy fights could grind Congress to a halt heading into the 2016 elections," she sagely points out," a move that threatens to undercut Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) plans to show that Republicans can restore order to Washington as he defends 24 seats."

Those other four cans kicked down the road before Capitol Hill cleared out for its August recess are politically terrible to behold:

  • The Iran no-nukes deal, which the Obama Administration fears could go down in flames if too few Democrats support it to overcome a veto override.
  • Government funding. The debate over rolling back mandated spending caps could go so far downhill as to bring on yet another painful shutdown of federal operations.
  • Debt ceiling. The push to raise it could be in play just as the GOP nomination fight stiffens, making the issue even more divisive.
  • Criminal-justice reform. A legacy-maker for the President, the drive to overhaul minimum sentencing, Carney notes, has split Senate Republicans, “with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-I) tasked with trying to bring together law-and-order types with the more libertarian wing of his party.”

Of course, there’s also the substantial matter of the juicy red-meat filler that may get packed into trucking’s particular sausage.

There’s a batch of highly significant trucking-specific policy riders that will be in play if and when the Senate and House get production going on a long-term highway bill they can send to the President.

These entail everything from reforming the Carrier, Safety, Accountability compliance program to enabling the use of hair samples in drug-testing to setting up a pilot program to allow 18- to 21-year old CDL holders to run interstate.

Among others, there’s the proposal to permit nationwide operation of twin 33-ft highway doubles and the measure seeking to raise the minimum insurance level required for carriers and to require that drivers be paid by the hour..

The rub is that not every motor carrier supports all of the measures being pursued on trucking’s behalf.

For one thing, while less-than-truckload companies tend to favor the longer doubles, an influential group of mostly but not exclusively truckload operations have made it plain they do not.

Then there are those carriers with outstanding CSA scores that want those to stay public vs. those that don’t.

And there are fleets that favor more, not less, safety regulation as opposed to those who think less is more or at least that what’s in place now is just about right.

Such differences in opinion on what trucking should lobby for or against as its big sausage gets poked and prodded through the political meatgrinder can add up to a recipe for intra-industry feuding to a degree not seen since way back in 1980, when the motor carriage industry was deregulated.

So, get your tub of popcorn and jumbo soda and settle in for the show.

But don't turn off your phone. There’ll be loads of useful trucking news from all over coming your way right here on www.truckinginfo.com long before the dubious credits roll at last and ‘Highway Bill and The Sausage Factory’  fades happily, or not, to black.

 

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David Cullen

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Executive Editor David Cullen comments on the positive and negative factors impacting trucking – from the latest government regulations and policy initiatives coming out of Washington DC to the array of business and societal pressures that also determine what truck-fleet managers must do to ensure their operations keep on driving ahead.

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