When Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont answered the call of his conscience, he turned politics in Washington, D.C., upside down. By changing his party affiliation from Republican to Independent, he gave the Democrats control of the Senate and placed President Bush’s agenda at risk.
Overall, the new Senate is likely to be less supportive of business interests. For example, Timothy Lynch, president of the Motor Freight Carriers Assn., doubts that this Senate would have approved the ban on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s ergonomics rules.

Also, Lynch foresees that chances of additional tax reform are dim. The Bush administration had asked business interests to leave the President’s tax-cut bill alone, promising that other opportunities would come along after that bill passed. Now, Lynch says, there is only a slight chance that another tax vehicle will get through the Senate, unless its purpose is to increase the minimum wage.
For specific trucking issues, the impact will play out from day to day as the new Senate leadership puts its stamp on legislation. One industry lobbyist, speaking on background, maintained that because the balance of power remains relatively even, the overall impact will not be significant. But it is clear that the Democratic Senators and staff who take over transportation-related committees will bring a different perspective to trucking’s legislative concerns.
Jeffords himself is slated to take over the Environment and Public Works Committee from Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire – a switch from conservative to moderate on this key panel. At issue before the committee are such subjects as engine emissions and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as transportation and infrastructure. Jeffords has opposed drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as President Bush has proposed.
At the pivotal Commerce and Transportation Committee, which oversees the Department of Transportation, Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina will take over for Sen. John McCain. While Commerce is traditionally more bi-partisan than other committees, the chairmanship will give Hollings a chance to assert himself on a current hot issue in trucking – the upcoming opening of the U.S. border to Mexican trucks. Hollings recently joined Rep. James Oberstar, D- Minn., in expressions of concern about DOT’s readiness to regulate Mexican truck safety.
Sen. Richard Shelby, a key American Trucking Associations ally in last fall’s fight to put the brakes on hours of service reform, will be replaced by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington as chair of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. Shelby was instrumental in passing an appropriations provision that said the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration cannot issue a final hours rule before next October.
A spokesman for American Trucking Associations said the trade group’s overall political strategy will not change. “We will continue to work in a bipartisan manner to aggressively advocate for what is in the best interests of our members and the trucking industry,” said Tom Amontree.
Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn., said he does not anticipate any significant differences in trucking affairs as a result of the Senate change. “We are not a party organization, we are an issues organization.”
Spencer was appreciative of Sen. Hollings' role on the Commerce Committee, noting that Hollings has been active in transportation issues for more than two decades. “From our perspective, there is no downside in having that depth of experience.”