Dems pan Senate highway bill regulatory changes

Dems pan Senate highway bill regulatory changes

Democrats are panning a host of regulatory changes that were approved by a Senate committee on Wednesday with the intention of adding them to a forthcoming transportation funding bill. 

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved its portion of a potential multi-year transportation bill during a mark-up on Wednesday as lawmakers are scrambling to beat a July 31 deadline for the expiration of the current infrastructure spending measure. 

The measure includes provisions that would change rules for trains, truck drivers and ports that are anathema to Democrats, which could complicate efforts to craft a bipartisan solution to the transportation funding problem.  


“This bill is an assault on critical safety protections and regulations — a safety rollback that takes a massive step in the wrong direction," Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyHuman rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Nearly 140 Democrats urge EPA to 'promptly' allow California to set its own vehicle pollution standards Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines MORE (D-Mass.) said in a statement released after the mark-up.

"It is disheartening and disappointing that the majority is unwilling to ensure safety regulators have the resources they need to address existing, unacceptable, inadequacies — recalling deadly, defective auto parts, or implementing critical, life-saving tools on trains should not be a question,"  the lawmakers continued. “We cannot continue to allow companies to conceal information or delay installing technology — reprehensible actions that have cost lives and will continue to do so if not corrected." 

Republicans on the panel cast the regulatory changes as a set of sensible reforms that would make the eventual transportation funding measure stronger. 

“The committee incorporated important bipartisan safety enhancements and approved a bill that enacts critical regulatory reforms,” the panel's chairman, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate votes to take up infrastructure deal Senators say they have deal on 'major issues' in infrastructure talks Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill MORE (R-S.D), said in a statement. “We worked hard to include input from both sides of the aisle and we now have a bill that can move forward towards enacting a multi-year transportation reauthorization bill versus passing additional short-term extensions.” 

Among the changes that were most galling to Democrats on the panel were a provision that would delay a mandate for the implementation of an automated rail navigation system known as Positive Train Control that is currently set for December. 

Railroad companies have been pushing for the mandate to be pushed back to 2020, but the deadline became controversial after a deadly Amtrak crash in May that investigators said could have been avoided if the automated system had been in place. 

Other provisions in the bill include a controversial effort to increase federal oversight of ports after a series of labor problems have threatened the flow of cargo packages in the U.S. and allow truck companies to conduct drug testing for their employees that involve hair instead of urine.  

The increased port oversight is unpopular with dockworkers' unions, who see the proposal as an intrusion on their right to organize, and critics have suggested the hair drug testing could discriminate against minorities who typically have coarser follicles.  

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx had warned lawmakers to avoid making changes to critical safety regulations.  

"Our department supports the inclusion of GROW AMERICA provisions to speed up transportation projects and improve auto safety measures such as a pilot grant program for state notification to consumers of a vehicle’s recall status at the time of registration and continuing recall obligations under bankruptcy," Foxx said in a statement ahead of the mark-up. 

"But, as a safety agency, we are duty bound to express concerns when matters under discussion will weaken safety," Foxx continued. "Several provisions, if passed, will do so. I strongly urge the ‎committee to avoid weakening safety and instead, to strengthen it.”

Foxx's warnings went unheeded, much to dismay of Democrats on the Commerce and Transportation panel.  

“With the level of congestion now on our railroads and the issues with our freight delivery system, there’s no reason why we have to pass this surface transportation bill that is more about rolling back the safeguards of current law in the areas of automobiles, trains and ports,” Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellBiden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Congress must act now to pass a bipartisan federal privacy law Democrats introduce equal pay legislation for US national team athletes MORE (D-Wash.) said. “This bill does not do enough, in fact, it walks back some important existing consumer protections.”

Lawmakers are facing a July 31 deadline for the expiration of the federal government's transportation spending. 

The House approved an $8 billion temporary patch that would extend the transportation funding until December on Wednesday, but the Senate has continued working on a potential long-term measure. 

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a six-year, $275 billion transportation spending plan last month, but lawmakers have not yet revealed how the measure would be paid for. 

The Senate's Banking and Finance Committees will also get to weigh in on the transportation bill, which is where the pay-for will most likely be hashed out.