With the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the question on the minds of trucking officials is, “How will things change?”
Clearly, most trucking stakeholders were hoping for a continued Republican majority, based on where they aimed their campaign contributions. The American Trucking Assns. gave $619,521 to federal candidates and parties for the 2006 election cycle, with 78% earmarked for Republicans, according to the Federal Election Commission. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. gave 79% of its $215,464 to Republican causes.
Overall, the top-20 trucking industry contributors gave $3,067, 076, with 78% going to Republicans. “One of our main issues is taxes,” said one carrier official. “The Republicans have lowered taxes for us, and the Democrats are an unknown.”
Very few people expect the Democratic majority to unwind the President's tax cuts, which are set to expire in 2010. Not only would the President veto such legislation, but the Democrats seem unwilling to upset the popularity of those cuts.
The most dramatic change will occur in committees that oversee transportation. Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) will most likely become chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. With their new power, we can expect to see Democratic lawmakers institute greater oversight of regulations and operations at DOT and FMCSA than was the case under Republican rule.
Congress also may choose to hold hearings on issues such as hours-of-service — although a regulatory change there is unlikely — electronic on-board recorders and homeland security. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) will most likely be the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. He is a strong proponent of increased security for the transportation infrastructure.
In 2008, Congress will begin work on the highway spending bill to replace SAFETEA-LU legislation that was passed last year after a multi-year delay. Whether the Democratically-controlled Congress can resist the blatant pork contained in the current law remains to be seen.
One issue on the minds of trucking stakeholders is the possibility of a new minimum wage, which the new Congress will most likely raise — above the objections of some small businesses. How much of an impact an increase from the current federal minimum of $5.15 an hour will have is uncertain, however, because 20 states already have minimum wages above that amount.
Another issue the new Congress will tackle is that of government contracts. The main focus will be the massive cost overruns at companies that are doing work in Iraq, such as Halliburton. Hearings are expected to be contentious and any legislation that results from hearings may spill over to trucking firms that have domestic government contracts, such as hauling for the Dept. of Defense. “Anyone who has not run their contracting operations squeaky clean may be in for some surprises,” says one Congressional staffer.
Finally, there is one very large matter that the new Congress will most likely address: a national energy policy, with an emphasis on alternative fuels and conservation. Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) is expected to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and on the Senate side, Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) would take over at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Dingell has already said he would promote new energy technologies, but has shied away from setting higher mileage standards.
The knock against the Republican-led Congress was that it did not take on large business-related matters such as an energy policy, a national freight policy, trade, a crumbling highway infrastructure, social security and immigration reform, but instead focused on what many consider private, individual issues such as stem cell research, abortion, flag burning and gay marriage, while raising the national debt to unprecedented levels.
Whether the newly configured Congress can move vital business issues forward remains to be seen.