It's official: For the time being, the U.S. Department of Transportation cannot fine unsafe truckers for violating the rules.
Thanks to political infighting on Capitol Hill, DOT also is prohibited from imposing civil penalties or pursuing enforcement cases with the DOT Inspector General, the U.S. Attorney or the FBI.
According to DOT sources, safety personnel have been told they must stand down from these activities, as well as from issuing compliance or consent orders, or settlements.
These restrictions do not apply to hazardous materials carriers, or to licensing, insurance or consumer regulations of the type that apply to Mexican carriers or household goods movers.
What one DOT official described as an "administrative nightmare" was triggered by President Clinton's signature last weekend on a transportation funding bill. The bill contains a provision by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-VA, that shuts off funding for the DOT truck safety program unless it is moved out of the Federal Highway Administration.
Wolf's aim is to force Congress and DOT to reform the truck safety program. Most of the program can be moved out of FHWA, but due to intricacies of the law portions of it cannot and therefore cannot be funded, according to the DOT general counsel.
So far, Congress is unable to find a way through this thicket. Two key transportation legislators, Reps. Bud Shuster, R-PA, and James Oberstar, D-MN, introduced a bill that would suspend the Wolf provision, but Wolf has signaled his opposition.
In remarks on the House floor last week, Wolf asked his colleagues to oppose the Shuster-Oberstar solution. "If the reorganization of the motor carrier office does not take place, more people will die," he said.
The way Wolf sees it, all that's needed is a "minor technical corrections bill" to give DOT the ability to levy fines.
An alternative fix would be for Congress to pass legislation that is pending in both houses that would transfer DOT's truck and bus safety program into a new National Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Meanwhile, important safety enforcement activities have been put on hold. Julie Cirillo, manager of DOT's truck safety program, said her biggest concern is that she will be forced to default in ongoing cases against alleged safety violators. Since safety officials can no longer pursue cases with law enforcement agencies, they will soon start missing legal deadlines and that will lead to cases being dropped, Cirillo said.