Trucking’s turn at the trough

When terrorists hijacked U.S. commercial jets and used them as weapons against our own citizens, Congress and the White House practically fell over themselves rushing to dole out some $15 billion in cash and loan guarantees to the troubled airline industry.

Whether or not a bailout of this magnitude was appropriate, it’s fair to say airlines deserved something. For decades, the federal government has left airlines to fund and execute what is, in essence, a law enforcement function. And it was by government edict that the entire U.S. aviation system was shut down for three days in September, costing airlines millions.

It’s also fair to say, however, that the federal government was quite generous to airlines – especially those that already were financially weak on Sept. 11. Injecting cash and government loan supports into the market probably will just delay the inevitable and allow the weak players to severely damage the strong. After all, if there’s less demand after Sept. 11, why should the government subsidize overcapacity?

You might not care whether the federal government bails out another industry, but you should. I’m not suggesting that the trucking industry oppose this largess. Rather, carriers should be standing on the Capitol steps shouting, “Us too!” (I wouldn’t advise visiting your congressman or senator in his office without a healthy supply of Cipro on hand.)

Like me, you probably don’t believe in handouts. I’m not suggesting a handout, just a hand. The American Trucking Associations has asked Congress for reasonable assistance and relief in several specific areas, and Congress should go along.

The trucking industry wants the same authority numerous other industries have to access national crime information databases to search criminal history records. ATA also proposes legislation to increase criminal penalties and fines for cargo theft, require uniform statistical reporting of stolen loads and provide increased funding for multi-jurisdictional task forces that have proven effective in combating this multi-million-dollar problem.

Wouldn’t these measures do more for the war on cargo theft than the war on terrorism? Absolutely. So what? ATA also is asking Congress to impose greater federal oversight of the commercial driver’s license program; to support a U.S. Customs Service initiative that facilitates enforcement efforts while expediting cargo across borders; and to allocate funds to strengthen tunnels and bridges and develop alternate routes to them.

The war on terrorism is ATA’s “hook” for recommending these actions even though trucking companies have commercial reasons for seeking them that go beyond terrorism. Regardless, the actions ATA seeks are clearly justified on their merits. Not that actual justification has ever been a high priority in Washington.

Congress maintains a proud tradition of dealing out favors with the barest of justifications. Even when the justification is great, lawmakers are quite adept at simultaneously preserving the American way while making sure that their constituents and friends get a piece of the action. During the Senate’s recent consideration of an aviation security bill, for example, New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici pushed an amendment to require further research and development on aviation security. Guess where one of the nation’s leading security research laboratories is located.

Like it or not, this is how the Washington game is played, and the trucking industry should push its position to the limit. Remember, there’s always an anti-trucking bill pending in Congress. In fact, legislation regulating truck size and weight was introduced in the House just last month. All’s fair in love and war.

Is it opportunistic to dress commercial agendas in emotional clothing like the war on terrorism? You bet it is. Is it un-American? Give me a break.

Avery Vise is editorial director of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail