Fuel Smarts

Help Wanted: Don Quixote

January 31, 2000

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Small wonder that the Department of Transportation is having a hard time finding the right person for the top job at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Here’s how the classified ad might read:

HELP WANTED: Brand-new truck and bus safety agency in Department of Transportation seeks top executive. Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape federal program dedicated to saving lives. Motor carrier safety experience required by law. Pays approximately $130,000 per year, with performance bonus.
Successful candidate will know no fear. Must enjoy dodging spears thrown from Congress, interest groups and entrenched bureaucracy, and be able to smile when spears strike home. Position requires nomination by President Clinton, FBI background check and Senate confirmation, a process that can drag on for months and sometimes includes scurrilous personal attacks by enemies who remain hidden. Note: position is temporary – must be ready to vacate office by Jan. 22, 2001, unless your presidential candidate wins.

Deputy Secretary Mortimer Downey is confident that DOT will find people who are up to the challenge, but added . . . “If you know of any, let us know.”

That surely was a facetious remark, considering the audience was a gaggle of reporters, but Downey acknowledged the core difficulty. “It is hard to get people to think about Senate-confirmed positions in the eighth year of an administration.”
This is an important job with a noble mission – to save lives. We pay a bitter price for our mobility and high standard of living: almost 42,000 people died in highway accidents in 1997. Of those lives, 5,355 were claimed in truck-related accidents – the specific province of FMCSA.
The person who runs FMCSA probably will never join the movie stars on the cover of People magazine, but he or she can make a real difference in the quality of our national life – not to mention in the lives of people who might otherwise lose a loved one.
And of course it is not an inconsiderable thing to win a presidential appointment, particularly if one is interested in rising in an administration.
But as Downey noted, these rewards come with significant disincentives. The first is circumstantial, having to do with the creation of the agency in a presidential election year. No matter who wins in November, there will be a new administration in January – and the new president gets to choose his own team. Whoever gets the job this year is likely to lose it next year.
Of course, if Vice President Al Gore gets a say in the nomination, and he wins, then the job might last longer. But that’s like drawing one card to beat four aces – or maybe three.
Then there’s the matter of passing muster with all the interest groups that will weigh in on the nomination. There aren’t too many people who can be accepted by labor, industry, the safety advocacy groups, law enforcement and the states – not to mention Congress. An endorsement from one is the kiss of death for another.
The accepted wisdom among FMCSA watchers is that no one with ties to the trucking industry will be acceptable. There is a logical basis for that view: FMCSA was created on the rubble of an agency brought down by accusations of an “incestuous” relationship with industry.
But DOT’s Mortimer Downey said that among current DOT Administrators there are those who have industry ties as well as those who do not. The most important thing, he said, is a firm commitment to success.
There’s an understatement. It will take cast-iron commitment and a teflon hide just to get through the nomination process. And then there’s the matter of the job itself. Consider, the first challenge will be to revise and implement the new hours of service rules.
Everyone wants to know the names but at this point it’s all speculation. DOT’s Downey says, “I never have a name until we have the name.”
But Mr. Downey, since you did ask for suggestions, there’s a gentleman from La Mancha by the name of Quixote . . . .

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