Rider fights heat up as Congress grapples with highway bill

Rider fights heat up as Congress grapples with highway bill

Industry groups are jockeying for position on a host of riders related to trucking and automaker rules, as well a renewal of the controversial Export-Import bank, as lawmakers are driving to finish work on a new multiyear highway bill for the first time in a decade.

Provisions that would renew the Ex-Im bank and lower the age for U.S. truckers were included in versions of the highway funding that was approved by the House and Senate ahead of bicameral negotiations that went public for the first time on Wednesday.

Language that would have allowed automakers to be jailed for failing to report car safety defects and eliminate a cap on the amount of money they can be fined for violations of federal reporting requirements was left out of the bill, over the vocal objection of safety advocates.

Groups are fighting to make sure their priorities stay in the highway bill now that lawmakers are getting serious about hashing out a bicameral agreement. In some cases they are hoping to keep their priorities out of the bill.

Supporters of increased transportation funding and the Ex-Im Bank pressed lawmakers to find ways to boost federal spending on roads and preserve the bank's renewal in the eventual bicameral agreement on the highway bill.

"Investment and updates to our nation’s transportation infrastructure are absolutely essential to manufacturers’ ability to compete and create jobs," the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) said in letter to lawmakers that was sent as the committee that has been set up to work on a bicameral agreement on the highway bill was meeting for the first time in public on Wednesday.

"The Ex-Im Bank helps level the playing field for U.S. companies seeking new sales in fiercely competitive global markets, ensuring that our nation's manufacturers can compete," the group added of the controversial Export-Import Bank, noting that "the House and Senate have already approved identical legislation by substantial margins, and the House soundly rejected amendments to the reauthorization language.

"The agency’s charter expired on June 30, and failure to reauthorize Ex-Im is already hurting manufacturers of all sizes across the country," the group continued.

Safety groups, meanwhile, sought to convince Congress to take trucking provisions they argued would make U.S. roads less safe out of the highway bill.

"This is the first highway bill in 25 years without a bipartisan agenda of safety improvements," the Consumer Federation of California and Consumer Watchdog said in a letter to Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerBottom line Trump administration halting imports of cotton, tomatoes from Uighur region of China Biden inaugural committee to refund former senator's donation due to foreign agent status MORE (D-Calif.), who is one of the leaders on the panel that is negotiating on the highway bill.

The group focused intently on a series of changes to trucking rules it says were inserted into the highway funding bill at the behest of trucking companies that have been "working to erode safety regulations with the result that truck driving is one of the most dangerous occupations in our country.”

"It is no surprise that there is a truck driver shortage considering that drivers are being forced to drive and work up to 82 hours a week in sweatshops on wheels," the safety group said in its letter, which listed several concerns about the safety provisions of the highway bill.

"Instead of fixing these issues to entice more workers to join the trucking workforce, this legislation seeks to secure a new pool of drivers, creating yet another serious problem," the letter continued. "The legislation would allow teenagers as part of pilot projects to get behind the wheel of big rigs and large buses to drive in interstate commerce.

"We urge you to get this ill-advised provision stricken or the safety of these youthful Americans and all those with whom they will share the roads will be threatened," the group concluded.  

Trucking groups have cast the move to allow teens to get behind the wheel of big rigs as a modest pilot program that would allow truck companies to address a shortfall in truck drivers that is predicted to reach 48,000 by the end of the year.

“The ability to find enough qualified drivers is one of our industry’s biggest challenges,” American Trucking Association President Bill Graves said in a recent statement.

Lawmakers on the conference committee got in on the act too, making the case for their favored provisions during Wednesday's public hearing.

"It’s critical that this conference committee focuses on producing a bill that increases funding above current levels and helps states and cities invest in their infrastructure in a meaningful way," Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownDemocrats reintroduce bill to create 'millionaires surtax' Cryptocurrency industry lobbies Washington for 'regulatory clarity' Biden 'allies' painting him into a corner MORE (D-Ohio) said.

"I am also pleased that both Houses included identical language reauthorizing the U.S. Export-Import Bank," he continued. "The bank is a job creator.  It has supported more than 350 businesses in my home state, about two-thirds of which are small businesses."

Brown said the Ex-Im renewal that is included in the highway bill "is five months overdue and will help ensure that Ohio’s exporters, manufacturers, and workers are not facing a playing field tilted in favor of their foreign competitors."

Conservative groups are still trying to convince lawmakers to leave the Ex-Im bank in the dustbin, however.  

"The bank is not needed," the Heritage Action said in a statement as lawmakers were establishing the committee that hashing out the highway bill.

"Its largest beneficiary — Boeing –—is thriving in a post-Ex-Im world," the Heritage Action statement continued. "For example, this summer the aerospace giant signed a 50-plane deal with FedEx, ensuring a steady line of production for its 767 cargo aircraft through FY2023."

Lawmakers on the conference committee said Wednesday they would produce a report on a bicameral agreement by the first week of December to allow the House and Senate to vote on the compromise package before the Dec. 4 deadline.