Rep. Frank Wolf wants to put more bite into truck safety enforcement, but his tactics have led to the possibility that enforcement's teeth will be pulled.
Wolf's move to force changes in the Department of Transportation's truck safety program could wind up jeopardizing safety by shutting off funding for enforcement. His position has been clear for months, but at this point neither DOT nor the lead congressional committee are prepared to handle the money shut-off that is pending.
As DOT officials and congressional staff scramble to fix the problem, the Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety is bracing for the possibility that it will not be able to fine truckers for safety violations, enforce out-of-service orders or conduct inspections along the Mexican border.
This began last spring, when Wolf put a provision in the transportation appropriations bill that would shut off funding to the Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety unless it is taken out of the Federal Highway Administration. The Virginia Republican wanted this leverage to keep the reform process moving.
Both the House and Senate have legislation that would move OMCHS into a new Motor Carrier Administration, but work on those bills is not complete - or at least not complete enough for Wolf. His provision was still in the appropriations bill that Congress passed yesterday, and it is on its way to the White House. When President Clinton signs it, which could happen in a matter of days but may take a week or more, the federal truck safety program will have to be moved from FHWA or killed, according to a member of Wolf's staff.
According to sources at DOT and in Congress, a legal interpretation of the Wolf provision from the DOT General Counsel's office says that while most of the safety program can be moved elsewhere in DOT and continued, important elements of the enforcement effort cannot be funded.
A source said OMCHS would not be able to assess fines for safety violations or enforce out-of-service orders on unsafe equipment. It would not be able to work on enforcement actions with the FBI, the U.S. Attorney or the DOT Inspector General. And it may not be able to continue safety inspections along the borders.
Rep. Bud Shuster, R-PA, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is considering holding an emergency hearing on Thursday, Oct. 7, to address this issue.