Time out

Lobbying and lack of data put hours reform on hold To hear truck lobbyists tell it, the Dept. of Transportation (DOT) was their best ally in the fight against the hours-of-service (HOS) proposal. "The main thing we relied on was the complete outrageousness of the proposal," says Jim Whittinghill, the American Trucking Assns.' senior vp for legislative operations. "It just wouldn't work in the real

Lobbying and lack of data put hours reform on hold To hear truck lobbyists tell it, the Dept. of Transportation (DOT) was their best ally in the fight against the hours-of-service (HOS) proposal. "The main thing we relied on was the complete outrageousness of the proposal," says Jim Whittinghill, the American Trucking Assns.' senior vp for legislative operations. "It just wouldn't work in the real world."

The proposal met with opposition from the minute it was published. Reaction from the trucking industry was intense and vociferous. At the time, a DOT official noted: "We expected a lively debate, but we didn't expect everyone to be against it."

This official's comments may have been slightly overdone. Some non-trucking industry stakeholders were pleased with the basic concept of the proposal because it established the government's stance that fatigue was the main cause of crashes. If truckers driver fewer hours, they'll be better rested and have fewer crashes. To them, this was a victory in principle.

The debate didn't get that far, however, as trucking industry interests attacked the plan with a vengeance. "After the proposed rulemaking was announced, we tried to work within the DOT process," says Whittinghill, "but DOT refused to answer many of our questions about the details of the plan."

For example, he said that DOT wouldn't respond to queries about how drivers are categorized if they're held overnight or delayed in traffic and go beyond the time limits for their specific driver category. The proposal calls for five classes of drivers: longhaul, regional, local-split-shift, local and incidental. "Their response was that we `can't answer the question, so put it in your comment.'" A DOT spokesperson said they tried to answer legitimate questions but some of the answers are not yet known. "That's why it's a proposal for rulemaking."

When it became clear to ATA officials that they couldn't find relief at DOT, they moved on to Congress, while continuing to hammer away at DOT. With Congress distracted by election issues, ATA lobbyists knew they'd have to find a must-do venue to help kill or delay the HOS proposal. "We knew that in an election year, an appropriations bill would be the one to look at," says Whittinghill. Funding bills always take priority. Their plan was to tack on a rider to a spending bill, one they knew Congress would pass and the President would have to sign, and that's where they focused their attention.

The lobbying effort was beautifully coordinated among ATA's policy department, the 11-person legislative office on Capitol Hill, the counsel's office and ATA members themselves who contacted their representatives about what they saw as a heavy-handed proposal that could wreck their businesses. "Once it became clear that the members of the trucking industry were behind us, it was certain that we'd be successful," says Whittinghill.

Last month, the President signed the fiscal-2001 transportation appropriations legislation, which includes a funding freeze for implementation of any change in the 60-year-old HOS regulations. The legislation does not prohibit DOT from continuing to study the plan or work with stakeholders, but they can't put any changes into operation for 12 months.

The delay of the HOS regulations is a landmark event for ATA because it was their first major test after the trade group changed its status from a broad-ranging association to one focused on lobbying.

While ATA's victory is significant, it won't be the group's only fight. DOT strategists will learn from their pummeling. "We learned that we must have all of our `i's' dotted and our `t's' crossed from the beginning," says one DOT official. "We need to have every perceived question answered from the start."

DOT officials admit that their biggest error was in making assumptions for many cash and cost estimates. "We won't make that mistake again," says the official.

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