True or false: Congress deregulated the trucking industry in 1980.
Unlike airline deregulation, where Congress simply abolished federal reuglation of air fares and routes, the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 focused on liberalizing the ground rules under which the Interstate Commerce Commission regulates how truckers set their rates and enter new markets.
While that act has brought about significant new competition and public benefits, the ICC still wields a lot of clout, and the industry is still far from being "degregulated." Consider:
* Despite the 1980 act, a number of bizarre regulations are still on the books. A trucker, for example, still needs an ICC license to haul butter, but not buttermilk; frozen beef dinners, but not frozen chicken dinners; chocolate-coated raisins, but not honey-covered raisins; and racehorses, but not horses used for recreational riding.
* Since 1948, truckers have enjoyed a special immunity from the antitrust laws that lets them sit down with their competitors and vote on what rates to charge their customers. Such blatant price-fixing would be a felony for other U.S. industries, and it raises prices paid by shippers and consumers.
The 1980 act forbids truckers from collective price-fixing along specific routes, starting July 1, 1984, but truckers will still be able to vote on across-the-board rate increases.
* Entering new markets can still be a problem for new firms and small truckers. President Reagan's ICC chairman, Reese H. Taylor Jr., is perceived as favoring a more restrictive approach to entry than the Carter ICC. As a result, some truckers are hedging against ICC denial of broad entry requests by seeking narrower licenses.
How narrow is narrow? Well, one company has applied to haul one commodity-- coal cinders--between two points--Charles County, Md., and Fredericksburg, Va., while another firm wants permission to haul only fertilizer between Woodward County, Okla., and Chase County, Neb.
All applications must be supported by affidavits showing public support for the new service, and ICC staff must pore over this paper work, along with any protests filed by established carriers, and prepare a decision that will stand up in court if a disgruntled competitor decides to sue. The net effect of this licensing system is to deny--or at least delay--new service to the public and to run up the bill for lawyers' fees.
In short, the 1980 act made important reforms, but there is still a way to go. Do we really need a federal agency fretting about who should haul coal cinders or frozen beef dinners? And why should truckers have any immunity from the antitrust laws when they set their rates?
The trucking industry was in its infancy when it was first regulated in 1935, but times have changed, and the only types of regulations now needed to protect the public are federal safety and insurance standards and some consumer protection rules when people ship their household goods. Beyond that, ICC regulation of the industry should end.
Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole announced plans to introduce such a "Phase II" deregulation bill in May, but top White House officials have reportedly put a hold on the proposal for fear of offending the Teamsters' Union, President Reagan's major labor supporter in 1980. The new Teamsters president, Jackie Presser, made opposition to truck deregulation bill his first priority after taking office this spring, and White House aides are apparently concerned that a truck deregulation bill could torpedo Teamster support for Reagan's reelection bid.
It is not unusual for the beneficiaries of special-interest regulation to oppose reform. What is surprising is the adminstration's sudden skittishness on this issue, considering its desire to deregulate just about everything else in sight.
Only the Teamsters and some elements of the trucking industry support continued regulation. By contrast, a broad coalition of business groups, farm groups, consumer organizations and some trucking concerns lobbied for the 1980 act and favor total deregulation, as proposed by Dole.
A truck deregulation bill would further some important national policies, such as increasing competition, thus restraining inflationary pressures, as well as boosting truckers' productivity and conserving oil.
Will the president's advisers "let Reagan be Reagan" and support the Dole bill? Or will they scuttle this proposal in return for a Teamster endorsement? The answer to those questions will show whether the president is genuinely committed to rooting out wasteful, special-interest regulation or supports deregulation only when it is convenient --and not when the rules favor the powerful few at the expense of the many.