March 10, 2008 7:50 AM, EDT

Upcoming Changes in White House, Congress Cloud Picture for Trucking Industry’s Future

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter
This story appears in the March 10 print edition of Transport Topics.

While politicians and pollsters count up votes and delegates in the long, slow march to the presidential election this November, trucking industry officials said the upcoming change in power clouds the industry’s outlook for 2009 and beyond.
“It’s an interesting three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle,” American Trucking Associations President Bill Graves said of the possible effect of the 2008 elections.
“Nothing in politics has been black and white for a long time, but it certainly is a muddled shade of gray in 2008,” Graves said. “Irrespective of who is elected the next president of the United States, that administration, on any given day, we will be well positioned vis-à-vis some issues we care about, and on the next day, be positioned exactly the opposite of where we want them to be.”
With fewer than eight months to go before November’s general election, the three most likely candidates who could win the White House are all current members of the U.S. Senate: Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) on the Democratic side, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as the Republican nominee.
“My example would be,” Graves said, “if you have a Clinton or Obama presidency, labor will gain a tremendous amount of influence on Capitol Hill, and that is not necessarily good for the trucking industry.
“Conversely though, there might be in a Clinton [or] Obama presidency a little more inclination to support funding for infrastructure that might not be part of a Republican administration,” he said.
The Teamsters union, the most important union in the trucking industry, endorsed Obama in mid-February.
“Sen. Obama will fight to rebuild our transportation infrastructure,” Teamsters President James Hoffa said in his statement. “He will work with us to address critical issues from our ports to our highways, rails and airports. We need a president who is focused on rebuilding America and Barack Obama will be that president.”
Hoffa told reporters in Washington during a January briefing that support for the Employee Free Choice Act, or card check, was a “litmus test” for the union.
Both Clinton and Obama had pledged to back the measure, Hoffa said. McCain not only opposes the measure, but co-sponsored a bill that would eliminate voluntary card checks as a way for employees to organize.
Beyond labor issues, several officials said the election could have a profound effect on trucking in the safety arena.
“It’s going to be the first time that in the history of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that someone other than President Bush will appoint the administrator,” said Rod Nofziger, director of government affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “It should be interesting to see how the culture of the agency changes with a new administration, whether that new administration is Republican or Democrat.”
Regardless of the election’s outcome, the effect on FMCSA and the Department of Transportation’s safety agenda figures to be the same.
“I would not be surprised if truck safety was not high on the agenda of a McCain administration or whoever the Democrat is,” said Dick Henderson, director of government affairs for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance. “I would have every reason to believe that is going to be very high on the agenda, at the top of the agenda.”
Henderson said McCain’s record in the Senate indicated he would elevate the importance of truck safety under his watch.
“Looking at Sen. McCain, for example — when he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee on highway safety — auto safety, truck safety were very high on his agenda,” he said.
McCain chaired the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee from 1997 to 2001, then again from 2001 to 2003. A vocal critic of the DOT’s record on truck safety at that time, he sponsored and shepherded through Congress the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999, the legislation that created  FMCSA (8-9-1999, p. 1).
John Conley, president of National Tank Truck Carriers, said he thought that experience might leave McCain better positioned to address transportation issues immediately.
“From a broad standpoint, Mc-Cain probably knows more about transportation from his time in the Senate,” Conley said. “The advantage of McCain is that he doesn’t need to learn the language of transportation.”
Though Obama and Clinton do not have McCain’s experience in the Senate — Obama was first elected to the body in 2004, and Clinton was elected four years earlier — both have announced plans during the campaign to repair and bolster U.S. infrastructure.
“For years, we have stood by while our national infrastructure has crumbled and decayed,” Obama said during a Feb. 13 speech. “For our economy, our safety and our workers, we have to rebuild America. I’m proposing a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that will invest $60 billion over 10 years. This investment will multiply into almost half a trillion dollars of additional infrastructure spending and generate nearly 2 million new jobs.”
In response to the Aug. 1 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Clinton called the deterioration of the nation’s infrastructure “a silent crisis.”
Clinton said that, as president, she would “invest $10 billion over 10 years in an ‘Emergency Repair Fund’ to begin addressing the extensive backlog of emergency infrastructure repairs.”
Henderson said that, regardless of which senator takes the oath of office next January, it is likely that “we would have a strong emphasis on safety, certainly with a Democratic candidate, especially assuming the Democrats retain control of Congress. And you’d see the impact of that right away in the 2009 reauthorization.”
The congressional elections are another piece of Graves’ three-dimensional puzzle.
With all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 seats up in the Senate, the landscape for the next president could be vastly different from what it is now — Democrats enjoy a 51-49 majority, thanks to two independent senators and a 233-202 edge in the House.
“We’ve also got to look and read the tea leaves for the outcome of senatorial races and congressional races,” Graves said. “If the Republicans maintain a pretty firm position in terms of their numbers in the Senate, that could impede legislation and make it difficult for a president, especially if it’s a Democratic president, to sort of have their way with the Congress, and that’s probably good for our industry.
“If Republican numbers slip any more in the Senate, we’re certainly at a bit of greater jeopardy,” he said.
“From a trucking standpoint,” Conley said, “if you told me, ‘Look, you could have the House and Senate, or you could have the White House,’ I would always take the Congress.”
Graves said whatever the outcome this fall, he was “not in any way ruling out our ability to work with either party to achieve what we need to achieve in the way of congestion relief and enhancement of freight movement in the next reauthorization.”
Each party, he said, presents its own challenges.
“We have concerns about the close relationships that the Democratic Party has with the labor unions and trial lawyers and, for the most part, that does not bode well for trucking industry,” he said. But at the same time, “there’s certainly been greater reluctance on the part of Republicans in Congress to invest in infrastructure.”