A recent hearing before the United States Surface Transportation Board (STB), the United States’ key rail regulator, serves as a sobering illustration of what can happen when a regulatory body veers off course.
On April 26, the STB hosted a hearing titled “Urgent Issues in Freight Rail Service.” Given the gravity of the ongoing supply chain crunch, soaring inflation indicators, tumbling markets and global unrest facing industries of all types in the county, including the nation’s freight rail companies, this was an important discussion to be had. But after seeing the grandstanding and theatrics directed toward the witnesses during the hearing, it seems that the typically staid federal regulator may have been afflicted by the fabled “Beltway Fever” that leads so many in D.C. to focus on soundbites versus substance.
As a former member of Congress, I’m no stranger to theatrics in the hearing room. Whether it’s a backbencher with a clever visual aide and an ax to grind or a senior member toying with an expert witness, it’s fair to say the committee rooms on Capitol Hill have seen their fair share of antics over the years.
It may not be perfect, but this kind of thing comes with the territory. After all, Capitol Hill is nothing if not political. Congressional hearings are, for good or ill, as much about the opportunity to score points for the cameras and the constituents back home as they are about deep dives into complex policy.
But while this kind of theater has come to be expected on the Hill, where the work is so inherently and inescapably political, it is much less common in hearings before regulatory bodies. In this time of extreme partisanship, it is important to maintain settings that allow for the unbiased and dispassionate examination of matters of great importance to our nation and its future. Losing the ability to engage in such objective discussions before regulatory bodies would deal a great blow to the policymaking process.
Among the witnesses testifying during the recent STB hearing was James Foote, CEO of Class I railroad CSX, one of the nation’s largest and most important freight rail carriers. Foote was the only Class I CEO to testify during the hearing. Other railroads sent exceedingly well-qualified executives to share their perspective, but only CSX sent the big boss into the STB’s hearing room for the session.
But instead of treating the hearing as an opportunity to ensure that the rail sector is operating at its highest potential, the session unfortunately devolved into a seemingly never-ending series of questions that felt much more like passionate activism than the even-handed work of a regulator.
For example, perhaps too tempted by the presence of a CEO to remain focused on the work at hand, STB member Robert Primus instead indulged in repeated lines of questioning that seemed more designed to embarrass or discredit Foote than to actually add useful information to the discussion. That’s a shame given just how crucial freight rail is to our nation’s ability to work its way through volatile economic times.
For Primus, who has recently been re-nominated by the White House for a second term as board member, it is very likely he was auditioning to prove he could be enough of an attack dog to warrant another term on the STB. Unfortunately, the line of questioning extended beyond just Primus to his other colleagues at the STB as well, who may have done so in an attempt to stay in the good graces of an administration that has a love-hate relationship with the freight rail industry.
The outcome was a hearing that felt more like a political tarring and feathering of a witness for the sake of the cameras in the room than a productive regulatory session. Repetitive, leading questions provided no path forward for a worthwhile working session and the resulting time in the hearing was patently unproductive and borderline antagonistic. This fact should cause some unease among those more concerned with the timely and efficient movement of freight than with the scoring of political points.
The STB is, by design, not a political body. Its hearings aren’t intended to serve as a bully pulpit for STB members. They’re meant to serve as a channel through which regulators, rail carriers, shippers and other stakeholders can engage with each other and work together to navigate challenges and deliver the best possible freight rail service.
Given the gravity of the broader supply chain and workforce issues facing industries of all types in the country — including the nation’s freight rail companies — there is no more important time than now for policymakers to step forward and offer solutions that Americans are looking for. Playing blame games and using a bully pulpit to score political points won’t actually address the issues that need to be tackled and in fact stand in contrast to the mission of a body like the STB.
While the opportunity to effect real policy change in the wake of this recent freight rail hearing has likely been squandered, hopefully the STB and other regulators can learn from this teachable moment and get back to offering the tangible solutions that our nation requires.
John T. Doolittle previously represented the 4th District of California in Congress from 1991 to 2009 and served on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Editor’s note: This viewpoint has been updated to reflect that Robert Primus has been re-nominated to his post, which is scheduled to end later this year.