After eight years of being aggressively regulated by the Obama administration, small-business truckers reckoned that, even if it did nothing for four years, a Trump administration would have to be an improvement.
That view has, for the most part, been borne out. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), which represents about 160,000 small-business truckers, gives the Trump Department of Transportation (DOT) high marks for, among other things, proposing that drivers nearing the end of their legal behind-the-wheel hours while still on the road be allowed to use their vehicles as “personal conveyances” to locate the nearest rest area. OOIDA was also gratified by the U.S. DOT’s push for greater transparency into the rates that shippers pay freight brokers, especially after spot rates plummeted to five-year lows in the spring as businesses shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
OOIDA praised federal trucking officials for their frequent outreach over the past three-plus years, noting that Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) officials were more visible at industry gatherings than their Obama-era predecessors. OOIDA cited former FMCSA Administrator Raymond P. Martinez for his “interested” engagement with the owner-operator community during his tenure, which ended with his resignation in October 2019.
“All things considered, the Trump administration has done pretty well” by owner-operators, said Michael Matousek, OOIDA’s manager of government affairs. Those sentiments would likely be decisively seconded by the group’s membership, which leans conservative and would tilt toward Trump anyway.
That’s not to say OOIDA was thrilled with everything that has come from the administration. It was annoyed when the White House early on decided to hold photo opportunities with executives of big truckers represented by the American Trucking Associations (ATA), whose agenda diverges greatly from OOIDA’s. The events prompted a February 2018 letter to Trump from OOIDA President Todd Spencer urging him to visit the “Americans who actually drive for a living” and “who helped get you elected” to understand their needs and concerns. The Trump 2016 campaign focused much attention on truck drivers as the forgotten Americans who would benefit from his “America First” policies.
OOIDA has no visibility into what a second Trump administration, or a new Biden administration, would mean for its members, Matousek said. But he made some assumptions. A Biden White House would be more favorable to worker interests and could favor drivers who have long chafed under onerous detention times that keep them from maximizing their earning power, Matousek said.
A Biden victory, along with the House retaining its Democratic majority and a blue-wave flip in the Senate, would jump-start negotiations toward achieving the first federal surface transportation spending law since the FAST Act’s passage in 2015, Matousek predicted. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and an OOIDA ally, would have a tailwind at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. DeFazio would work closely with Biden to fashion a spending bill, Matousek said.
However, a Trump reelection, combined with Democrats retaining their House majority and possibly capturing the Senate, would create such immovable gridlock that another four-year presidential term could pass without a transport-spending law, Matousek said. The Highway Trust Fund, which finances road projects largely through fuel-tax collections, would limp along with another multiyear string of short-term funding extensions.
OOIDA is likely more concerned with the shape of a new Congress than with who holds the power levers in the executive branch. That’s because the group has been constantly frustrated with the legislative process as it has affected its members.
“We don’t remember the last time we’ve supported a final version of a highway bill,” said Lewie Pugh, OOIDA’s executive vice president and a small-business trucker for more than 20 years.
The latest disappointment came several months ago, when DeFazio introduced a transport-spending bill that OOIDA lauded as favorable on various fronts, such as providing $250 million in funding for truck-parking capacity. Just as important from OOIDA’s perspective, though, was that the bill did not contain language toxic to its interests, notably a near tripling in minimum insurance requirements to $2 million in coverage from $750,000.
Two weeks later during the bill’s first markup, DeFazio reversed course and backed language mandating the higher premiums, according to Matousek. OOIDA’s support for the bill quickly turned to opposition. The bill eventually passed the House but was declared dead on arrival in the Senate. Faced with the need to reauthorize the five-year FAST Act before Sept. 30, Congress voted to extend its funding until September 2021.
OOIDA knows it will never get what it considers a perfect bill. Democrats support initiatives such as higher insurance premiums, installation of underride guards on every side of a commercial vehicle and mandatory speed limiters. All of those are nonstarters for OOIDA. Meanwhile, Republicans generally support the deployment of longer twin-trailers, as well as language allowing drivers between 18 and 21 years of age to operate commercial vehicles in interstate commerce, measures that OOIDA opposes.
Pugh said that OOIDA would almost welcome continued gridlock on Capitol Hill because it would minimize the chances of language being passed that could be harmful to its members. “Congress is always the frustration,” he said.
Inside the Election 2020 series
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