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Logistics Quarterly Magazine - Volume 16, Issue 2, 2010


By John Cutler Jr.

Fall Elections Promise Worse Gridlock

Virtually all U.S. elections in “off years” (i.e., when votes are cast for Members of Congress but not for president), lead to gains by the party not in power. In 2010, several factors appear likely to increase losses by Democrats. These factors include a weak economic recovery, concerns about federal deficits and the bank, auto industry and AIG bailouts that contributed to them, the rise of the Tea Party movement, dramatic increases in campaign ads supporting Republican candidates, and gridlock in Congress.

Admittedly, good news seems to be in short supply. Unfortunately, change for the better seems unlikely even after the elections. If Republicans take control of the House, the Senate, or both, they are unlikely to be more successful with their agenda than Democrats were when they were in the majority.

The main problem lies with the need, rarely seen in the past but common today, for 60 votes to enact bills in the Senate. This requirement, based on increased threats of filibusters, is bad enough, but the problem is compounded by the ability of a single senator to block action through an anonymous “Hold.” Time after time, bills enacted in the House have died in the Senate.

If legislative gridlock operated only to kill pet projects from the extreme left and right, opening the way for centrist legislation with bipartisan support, the situation might be tolerable. Unfortunately, centrist politicians are an endangered species. Too many Republicans refuse to consider tax increases, even if only applied to millionaires. Too many Democrats refuse to consider cuts in services or programs whose effectiveness is questionable, or which clearly deserve elimination.

What does all this mean for transportation, logistics and supply chain professionals? Needed legislation is likely to be postponed indefinitely.

Exhibit A is a new highway bill, replacing SAFETEA-LU, which expired September 30, 2009. The need for infrastructure investment is undisputed, and the pile of supporting studies continues to grow. On September 23, 2010, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued its Transportation Infrastructure Index, showing the lack of investment to be a “major drag on economic growth.” On October 4, a report by the National Transportation Policy Conference, headed by two former DOT secretaries, called for increased funding for the deteriorating transportation infrastructure.

However, Governor Bill Graves, president of the American Trucking Associations (ATA), and Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, have both predicted that we are likely to see extensions of SAFETEA-LU through 2013, and no new highway bill till 2014 at the earliest. Highway bills traditionally enjoy bipartisan support, and economic conditions in three or four years may (or may not) permit resolution of funding issues that are intractable now.

Federal Aviation Administration and Surface Transportation Board reauthorization are in limbo now, and will almost certainly not be enacted prior to the elections this November. After that, action during the “lame duck” session, when Members of Congress can vote without the threat of imminent defeat at the polls, may be possible. However, there is little reason to expect 2011 to be better than 2010 on Capitol Hill. Neither party is likely to have the votes to impose its will on the other, and there is no reason to expect the survivors of a bruising, polarizing campaign to be in a mood to reach across the aisle to compromise with political foes. And if Republicans are able to pass legislation, presidential vetoes may prevent the bills from becoming laws.

In 2011, the 111th Congress will begin its first session. For reasons set forth above, legislation that requires funding may face insurmountable hurdles. The best we can hope for may be bills that streamline and improve regulations and programs affecting logistics and supply chains. If such bills do not cost any more and do not undermine health, safety or the environment, but make popular or accepted programs work better, they may be enacted. There are some good bills pending which deserve a fresh start in 2011, even if major legislation that is even a little controversial must be placed on hold.

Gridlock on Capitol Hill may leave administrative agencies free to pursue their policy initiatives, and those of the White House. Changes in truck driver hours of service rules are expected, which carrier groups like ATA and shipper groups like NASSTRAC are expected to oppose. New regulations on security and safety are also likely. Members of Congress may have problems with these policies, but gridlock will reduce the likelihood of effective oversight.


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