Reps. Bud Shuster, R-PA, and James Oberstar, D-MN, yesterday introduced a bill to fix a provision in another bill that would force DOT to stop imposing fines for violations of the safety rules.
The Shuster-Oberstar measure would suspend language in a transportation spending bill that is awaiting President Clinton's signature. That language, which was put in the spending bill last May by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-VA, would cut off money for truck safety enforcement unless the Secretary of Transportation moved the truck safety program out of the Federal Highway Administration.
Wolf's intent was to force reform in the safety program. The effect, however, has been to jeopardize highway safety: if Clinton signs the money bill before there is a fix, then truck safety enforcement will be handcuffed.
At a House hearing yesterday, Oberstar dubbed the money bill "the Commercial Vehicle Violators Relief Act." His remark typified the angry mood of Republicans and Democrats alike on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Said Rep. Nick Rahal, D-WVA, "The refusal of the Republican leadership (of the House) to protect this committee's jurisdiction puts the lives of the motoring public in jeopardy."
At the hearing, DOT General Counsel Nancy McFadden said that under the Wolf provision DOT would not be able to assess civil penalties or work with the U.S. Attorney to pursue civil or criminal enforcement.
"Essentially, we would not be able to force a carrier to comply with federal law and regulation," she told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
DOT would be able to issue rules, conduct compliance reviews and investigations, inspect Mexican carriers at the border and place drivers and vehicle out of service for serious violations, she said.
Wolf has been publicly silent, so it is not known if he intended to create these distinctions between enforcement that can and cannot be continued. But his blunt legislative tactics struck an obscure nerve in the law that governs DOT and FHWA, triggering this possible enforcement breakdown.
Possible remedies, besides the Shuster-Oberstar initiative, include a presidential veto of the transportation funding bill, or quick passage of legislation that would move the truck safety program into a new Motor Carrier Safety Administration at DOT.
Meanwhile, Julie Cirillo, chief of the truck and bus safety program at DOT, said that despite the disruption her team is focusing on getting the work out (see related story below).