After initially resisting calls for more time, Slater Friday issued instructions to extend the comment period from July 31 to October 30.
His decision came after dozens of witnesses in public hearings on the proposal urged that the extension be granted.
Slater also had been pressured by leaders of the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who told him that the original 90-day comment period is not enough time to review the complex and far-reaching proposal.
Meanwhile, trucking interests are firing up a legislative campaign to put a wedge in the rulemaking gears.
The American Trucking Associations is supporting a provision in the Senate transportation appropriations bill that would effectively kill the proposal for a year.
And this week, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-CO, is expected to introduce a bill that orders DOT not to move ahead on the proposal. His bill will echo a similar measure introduced in the House by Rep. Lee Terry, R-NE. For Congress to agree on these bills, it would have to overcome the objections of members who have long been pushing DOT to revise the rules.
As Senate appropriations panels prepare to mark up their bill tomorrow, the ATA tactic faces stiff obstacles. If the provision is attached to the bill, it is likely to be resisted by the Clinton administration. Slater told Sen. Richard Shelby, R-AL, chairman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, that while he is willing to grant the extension, he is not prepared to stop moving on the proposal.
Also opposed are liberal activist groups such as Public Citizen and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, as well as the Transportation Trades Division of the AFL-CIO.
Julie Anna Cirillo, acting chief safety officer of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said the legislative maneuver is counterproductive.
“The regulatory process has started,” Cirillo said. “To close it down before it has had a chance to run its course is counterproductive.”
In comments to transportation reporters, Cirillo indicated that the safety agency is willing to making changes in its proposal (See related story).
In any event, the regulatory process remains under way. Public hearings on the proposal will continue into July and the safety agency will receive additional comments through October.
When can truckers expect a conclusion? Negotiations over the legislative shut-down are likely to continue into the fall. On the rulemaking side, Slater has indicated that his goal is to get the final rule out before the end of the year, but this extended deadline makes that more difficult. After DOT finishes its review and rewrite, the rule still has to clear the White House Office of Management and Budget.
And if the proposal as it is now written becomes final, there remains the strong possibility that it will be challenged in court. On the other hand, the safety agency may come up with a revision that is acceptable to truckers and other interested parties.