As the deadline for a deal on hours-of-service reform looms, there still is no agreement between the principal antagonists over a bill that would shut off funding for the reform process.
Clyde Hart, acting deputy administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said that all the agency wants is to continue the process.
In response to industry concerns about the proposed restructuring of driver schedules, the safety agency has extended the comment period until Dec. 15, scheduled roundtables to discuss the proposal and announced plans to issue a supplemental rule based on what it learns at the roundtables.
But that’s not enough for Walter B. McCormick, Jr., president and CEO of American Trucking Associations.
It was ATA that pushed for the funding cut-off in the Senate Appropriations bill for the Department of Transportation.
McCormick said that while he welcomes the agency’s initiatives, “We need to see a change in substance.”
“To date we have not heard any acknowledgement that the current proposal is unsafe, impracticable and detrimental to the economy,” he said.
Hart said yesterday that he will not give McCormick that acknowledgement. “I don’t see how I can do that . . . and still keep this process going. That’s basically saying, start over, and then we’ll talk. Well, we don’t need to start over.”
The place to start, Hart said, is where the process is now. “We need to fight over the evidence that we’ve gotten. Maybe [the industry] has some more studies that show different things – fine, bring them in, let’s sit down, put them in the docket, analyze them.”
In any event, Hart explained, under the ATA provision in the Senate bill, the agency would not be at liberty to start over. “The language says quite specifically, that you will not spend any money to work on this rulemaking or any similar rulemaking.”
To start anew would open the agency to lawsuits over the definition of “similar,” he said.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Congress needs to approve appropriations bills by the end of the month to keep the government funding process on schedule.
The Senate and House are at odds over the DOT appropriations bill, partly because of this provision. The House bill does not contain the provision, and Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater invoked a veto threat if the Senate version prevails.
There has been considerable antagonism between DOT and ATA on the issue. In a press release last month, Hart said the shutdown provision is “raw use of political power by specific trucking interests to stop progress.”
ATA struck back with a letter by Senior Vice President David Addington, accusing the safety agency of attacking ATA for exercising its right of free speech, and calling for an investigation by the DOT inspector general.
There has been conversation within DOT and on Capitol Hill about compromise. Hart suggested “limiting language” in the provision that would allow the agency to continue the process.
Even if the process goes forward, Hart expects that it will take a year, maybe more, to finish.
According to sources inside and outside DOT, the “limiting language” might allow the agency to continue work but set a date certain, perhaps as far out as two years, before which the rule could not be published. It might also order the agency to replace the current proposal with a supplemental rule.
Hart explained that the supplemental rule, officially known as a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, would in effect repeat a portion of the rulemaking process. The public would have a chance to comment on the supplemental notice before the agency publishes a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – which is the phase we are in now.
“We haven’t gotten that far to decide how long the comment period would be, but I would suspect that it would be somewhere comparable to the time limit we set when we rolled out the original Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” Hart said.