Passing Zone

At ATA, Thoughts on Policy-Making and Politicking

Blog Commentary by David Cullen, Executive Editor

October 24, 2017

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Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) speaking to ATA committee in Orlando. Photo: David Cullen
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) speaking to ATA committee in Orlando. Photo: David Cullen

You could certainly be forgiven if you were attending the American Trucking Associations’ annual confab here in Orlando this week and thought you’d made a wrong turn and stumbled into one of those partisan party retreats that Capitol Hill denizens hold somewhere outside the Beltway every now and then.

In this case, you might have thought you had fallen in among a conclave of roaring elephants. And why wouldn’t you, what with the carefully spaced array outside the exhibit hall of regally tall and handsomely mounted posters displaying blown-up photos of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence interacting with various ATA leaders over the course of this year, each accompanied by a quote underscoring how the industry’s top lobby has literally parked itself at the White House.

In ATA President and CEO Chris Spear’s second state-of-the-industry address, he vividly recalled the photo-op friendly to the max White House visit ATA’s leadership enjoyed with President Trump back in March as well as the appearance by some ATA leaders at a campaign-style rally the president held earlier this month in Pennsylvania.

At the latter meeting, Trump floated a proposal to cut corporate tax rates by 20% and to eliminate the estate tax. “With the president now championing our best interests, the entire nation is paying attention to what we have to say,” Spear remarked. He also declared that, “With the president now championing our best interests, the entire nation is paying attention to what we have to say.”

One of several impressive signs heralding ATA's bending of President Trump's ear this year. Photo: David Cullen
One of several impressive signs heralding ATA's bending of President Trump's ear this year. Photo: David Cullen
If they wasn’t enough to get folks trumpeting like a bellicose herd of you-guess-what, at this meeting ATA also executed something of a double coup, booking-wise, in that not none and not one but two members of the Cabinet addressed standing-room-only crowds at separate general sessions on the conference schedule. That lineup trumped by far the other inside-the-Beltway speakers ATA has hosted in recent years, which if this reporter’s memory serves, topped out at the level of FMCSA Administrator and of Chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Both Cabinet members saluted the trucking industry for all it does day in and day out for all Americans.  And, each in their own way, touched on various policy issues of concern to trucking, if not American business in general.

Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, after being graciously greeted by his rapt audience, gave the more detailed speech. He laid out how the administration plans to make it easier for industry groups like ATA to establish formal apprenticeship programs designed to “close skill gaps” so workers can be effectively trained to fill job vacancies requiring specific skills, such as are needed for driving trucks or for maintaining them.

Acosta applied a little political spin to his announcement by noting that, unlike prior federal efforts to push apprenticeship programs, this time out “we are not going to manage apprenticeships from Washington. You [in trucking] are in the best position to define what your industry needs and react to those needs…. Barriers that stood in the way of apprenticeship programs are ready to come down.”

Even more warmly greeted was Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who enjoys a long familiarity with trucking going back to when she served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation under President George H.W. Bush. And she was Secretary of labor throughout both terms of President George W. Bush. More a homecoming than anything else, Chao’s speech was longer on platitudes than specifics.

However, she did make one political reality crystal-clear. “You won’t see an infrastructure funding proposal until after Congress reforms the tax code,” she stated bluntly. Chao admitted that she had expected to roll out the administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure investment proposal in detail by “late fall” of this year. But the spectacle that resulted from trying and failing to roll back Obamacare put the kibosh on that timing. And now, she explained, lawmakers’ attention is riveted on pushing through a rewrite of the outmoded federal tax code before this year is out.

Chao did reassure the audience that trucking’s “voices are being heard” as to what the massive infrastructure plan should embrace, noting she has met numerous times with trucking advocates, including ATA.

Hearing 1-2-3 like this from Spear, Acosta, and Chao might just leave one wondering why would trucking even bother to reach out to Democrats on Capitol Hill or anywhere else for that matter, like in the 50 statehouses across our great land?

Ah, but here’s the rub: If you heard Chris Spear express his appreciation for the one Member of Congress who addressed ATA’s Highway Policy committee in Orlando, you would immediately realize that his take, and by extension ATA’s, on lobbying and legislating is not about embracing or enforcing party discipline. Nope, not at all. It’s all about advancing policy accomplishments by working with Republicans and Democrats alike when their respective interests align with those of ATA.

During that committee meeting, members of the press were allowed to sit in to hear Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) passionately urge ATA to keep fighting the good fight to raise the federal fuel tax  to responsibly fund long-term highway infrastructure improvements. His remarks earned solid applause from the committee members and onlookers in the room several times.

“I care about funding infrastructure,” stated Blumenauer, who sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and has previously served on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “The infrastructure paralysis, the funding, is a bipartisan problem.”

Blumenauer, a long-time proponent of hiking the federal fuel tax and indexing it to inflation to fill the coffers of the Highway Trust Fund, applauded trucking’s drive to secure greater infrastructure funding by pressing the president on that issue.

He also indicated he’s encouraged that the tide may be turning in favor of higher fuel taxes, given that some solidly Republican states, including South Carolina “which passed the gas tax over their governor’s veto,” have recently passed such increases. Blumenauer also told the committee that “your [ATA’s] own research shows there is [political] movement toward acceptance of the gas tax. We can work together to move on this,” he added.

No sooner had the Congressman wrapped up his pep talk then Chris Spear stood up to sing his praises. Spear said no one on Capitol Hill has “worked as hard to cultivate bipartisan support for common sense policy” than has Blumenauer. And he saluted him for adhering to his principles, saying that while Blumenauer supported his party, he did not place it above the national interest. “We need more people like Earl,” Spear stated plainly.

And while there may be a very good reason for why Rep. Blumenauer wasn’t a featured speaker out on the main stage during the conference, it seems to me that not having him voice his full-throated support of raising the fuel tax before the largest possible audience was an opportunity lost for ATA to dramatically demonstrate to its members--- and to trucking at large--- that getting policy made is not about adhering to or even reflecting party labels.

Related: Trump Talks Taxes-- but what About Roads? 

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David Cullen

Executive Editor

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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