The House postponed action yesterday on legislation to reduce regulation of the railroad industry in a last-minute attempt to work out a compromise on a controversial provision of the bill.
The measure was pulled off yesterday afternoon's calendar after a morning meeting between key congressmen -- mostly Texans -- who raised objections to some portions of the bill and Transportation Secretary Neil Goldschmidt, presidential adviser Stuart Eizenstat and others. Although the administration has been backing the bill and its chief House sponsor, James J. Florio (D-N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee on transportation and commerce, Goldschmidt and Eisenstat agreed yesterday to consider anew several proposals put forth by the congressmen, according to Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D-Texas), one of the participants in the meeting. Florio was not at the meeting and was not involved in the negotiations during the day. He couldn't be reached for comment yesterday.
Yesterday's delay was at least the third time the bill's consideration by the House has been put off.
The legislation generally would give the railroads greater marketing and pricing flexibility than they have had under the pervasive system of federal regulation under which they have operated for almost a century. The primary issue currently being disputed involves the future role of the Interstate Commerce Commission over the freight rates the railroads may want to charge the so-called "captive shippers," those who have no reasonable alternate means of transporting their goods.
Although the bill contains provisions that are designed to protect shippers from unreasonable rates by preserving ICC jurisdiction when there is no effective competition, Eckhardt, Majority Leader James Wright (D-Texas) and others who attended yesterday's meeting claim shippers in their regions would be hurt by the bill's provisions and want to preserve tighter ICC control of costs. Specifically at issue, say some transportation watchers, are the interests of several large Texas utilities that use coal. Eckhardt contends that his proposed amendment would not put a cap on coal rates but would allow the ICC to enter the picture when rates exceed a certain percentage of a railroad's variable costs; that percentage would be lower than the formula written into the bill.
Last night, an administration official said he hopes the bill would be acted on by the House as soon as possible, and denied that the administration had been withdrawing its support of the Florio measure. "We have tried to facilitate a compromise on the bill, but it looks like conference will be the best arena to reach agreement on several of the outstanding issues," he said.
The rail bill is the last of three transportation deregulation measures to be proposed and supported by the administration. The controversial trucking measure was signed into law earlier this month.
A rail bill that did not go as far toward deregulation as the administration of the industry wanted passed the Senate in April after a last-minute compromise there averted a fight over coal-hauling rates that could have sidetracked the measure.