In a little-noticed display of bipartisan comity, Congress is moving to significantly toughen regulation of truck drivers and their vehicles, after hearing a spate of public complaints and testimony suggesting dangerous practices may be far too common.
But the effort is being undermined by an intramural turf battle between the two most powerful House Republicans on transportation issues, who disagree about the seriousness of the problem and who are both anxious to put their imprint on truck safety legislation.
On Saturday, President Clinton signed legislation that effectively stripped most authority to regulate truckers from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which critics claim is too close to the industry.
Later this week, the House may take up broader legislation that would create a semi-independent National Motor Carriers Administration with more authority to revoke licenses, as well as shut down rogue operators, and more money for safety enforcement. In the Senate, Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has announced he plans to report a similar bill later this month.
The legislative push is being fueled by growing concern about dangers to motorists from the nation's trucks.
Although fatalities involving trucks declined in the 1980s, the number has remained above 5,000 for several years. "If something isn't done, the likelihood is that the number will begin to grow again," said Deputy Secretary of Transportation Mortimer L. Downey.
Public attention was focused on the issue in March by the crash in Illinois involving an Amtrak train and a truck operated by a driver whose license had been suspended. Trucks handle more than 80 percent of the nation's freight.
Some 6 million drivers and 490,000 truck and bus companies are subject to federal truck safety laws. The overwhelming majority of roadside inspections to check for violations of federal safety law are done by state inspectors, who have conducted approximately 2 million inspections this year.
But the Office of Motor Carriers in FHWA has been criticized for assessing fines in only 11 percent of the cases in which inspectors document violations of motor carrier safety laws. And where fines are assessed, the department has settled cases for less than 50 percent of the assessed fines, Congress has found.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee, has been a prime mover in the drive for tougher regulation, based in part on his experiences driving on the main arteries of Northern Virginia.
"One of five of those trucks are in bad shape," Wolf said in an interview last weekend. Making the rounds recently with state inspectors, Wolf said, he had found lug nuts sheared off, rusted brakes and tires "like baloney skin."
A year ago, Wolf attempted to move truck safety responsibilities into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but that move was specifically blocked by the GOP leadership in the House and Senate.
This year, however, he was able to insert a provision that barred any funding for the Office of Motor Carriers as long as it was in FHWA. The provision went into the conference report on the 2000 transportation spending bill, subsequently approved by a large margin in the House and Senate and signed by Clinton on Saturday.
But that course of action has put him on a collision course with Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Sources close to the House GOP leadership said Shuster will try to use a procedural maneuver this week to outflank Wolf's objections and get a House vote on repealing the truck safety provision in Wolf's bill.
Wolf said he would fight it. "It's an issue of life and death," he said. If truck safety responsibilities revert to FHWA, "more people are going to die," Wolf said.
Shuster contends that a serious technical flaw in the Wolf-supported legislation would prevent federal safety officials from imposing or collecting fines on truckers. His more serious complaint is that Wolf jumped the gun on the more comprehensive reform proposed in the bill drafted by Shuster's committee that may be considered this week.
Shuster is assured of substantial support. The American Trucking Associations, which is close to the Republican leadership in the House and Senate, backs Shuster's effort to repeal Wolf's provision. It supports establishment of an independent motor carriers administration.
As chairman of the Transportation Committee, Shuster can parcel out hundreds of millions of dollars in highway money to congressional districts all over the country, and he has not been reluctant to use his power.
Shuster has indicated that he disagrees fundamentally with Wolf about the seriousness of the safety situation on the highway network. While acknowledging there is "room for improvement," he contends that "there is not a major safety crisis."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) is attempting to repeal truck safety provisions recently signed into law by President Clinton.
CAPTION: Based in part on his experiences on highways in Northern Virginia, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) is for toughening regulation.