Wednesday, January 3, 2007
I am a great foe to favoritism in public life . . ..
— Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
Mr. Bush is nothing, if not a man of his word. When Mr. Bush was running for president he promised he would relax rules that assorted groups believed were onerous. And once elected he courageously followed through on those promises being, after all, a man who believes what he says even when others are not sure just what that is.
Mr. Bush put people who knew a lot about trucking in charge of the Department of Transportation. They knew a lot because before becoming administrators they had been in the trucking industry, an industry that gave more than $14 million in campaign contributions to Republicans between 2000 and 2006.
A former top official at the American Trucking Associations, Michael P. Jackson, became deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation. A former Roadway executive and head of a trucking industry foundation, Joseph M. Clapp, was hired to lead the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and became actively involved in rewriting rules regulating the industry. (FMCSA was created by Congress in 1999 because Congress believed casualties involving trucks were too high and regulation of the industry too lax.) Thanks to the input of the former trucking industry executives, new regulations were issued loosening the rules affecting the trucking industry.
Ignoring statistics that said a high percentage of truck accidents were caused by tired truck drivers, the department acted on an industry study that said only 2% of accidents were the fault of tired truck drivers and 80% the fault of passenger car drivers. Among other things, the new regulations increased the maximum driving hours from 60 to 77 over 7 consecutive days and from 70 to 88 over 8 consecutive days while increasing the time off required to 10 hours from 8. This was the first increase in the number of hours drivers were permitted to work in 60 years. Regulators declined to require new drivers to undergo additional training as had been suggested by safety groups.
The administration says the new regulations have saved money for businesses and consumers making it cheaper for goods to be moved across country. Safety is also improved they explain. By lengthening the number of hours experienced drivers are permitted to work even though tired, fewer new and inexperienced drivers are needed.
Not persuaded by those arguments, a number of safety conscious groups sued to overturn the regulations. They succeeded. In a 2004 opinion a three-judge panel for the D.C. Court of Appeals criticized the FMCSA for “ignoring its own evidence that fatigue causes many truck accidents.” The opinion said that: “the agency admits that studies show that crash risk increases, in the agency’s words, ‘geometrically’ after the eighth hour on duty.” The court said the new rules were “arbitrary” and “capricious”.
One year after the rules were overturned, the FMCSA reissued them in what is described as almost identical form. A suit to overturn them has been brought by Public Citizen, Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, teamsters and other groups. The court heard argument in early December. Time will tell how the new rules fare.
The trucking associations are not the only beneficiaries of Bush largesse. The EPA is again in the news, peopled with people anxious to please Mr. Bush rather than the environment. In mid-December the EPA announced new federal pollution regulations effective January 2007. Under the old rules governing emissions, all facilities that released more than 500 pounds a year of approximately 650 different toxics had to report details of the release by putting them into the Toxics Release Inventory. Under the new rules the reporting requirements only apply to releases of 2000 pounds or more. If releases are less than that the facility submits a list of chemicals involved instead of the more detailed information such as how much was released and where it went. In Arizona, facilities that emitted more than 500 pounds of toxics in 2004 emitted a total of 56.6 million pounds. Under the new rules approximately half of those facilities will be exempted from detailed reporting requirements. Pollution making industries heralded the new rules saying it cuts down on paperwork and keeps the public from intruding into their business.
Explanations for the new regulations, though persuasive as Bush explanations usually are, are counterintuitive. Tim Hamlin, who works in the EPA’s Region 10 office, said that the idea behind the loosened regulations is “to create incentive to business to improve their processes to reduce the discharge of these chemicals.” The EPA issued a statement explaining that the changes encourage companies to reduce release of toxic chemicals because it saves them paperwork if they do. It describes this new process as “burden reduction” for industry. It is. It could be called “burden enhancement” for the environment. It is.