January 8, 2012
The Democratic Party's War on TransportationBy John F. Di Leo
We think of the world of transportation -- especially trucking and automobile manufacturing -- as being one of the most fundamental of Democratic Party constituencies. Detroit has long been a party stronghold, with the UAW and Teamsters among Democrats' most powerful union supporters. From the worker at the DMV to the driver he licenses, this is one solid chain of Democrats.
But is this political loyalty deserved today, if indeed it ever was? Since the Democratic Party was taken over by environmental extremists a generation ago, there has been a marked shift from the pro-driver, pro-automaker party of Detroit to the anti-car, anti-truck, anti-transport party of today. One can be forgiven for thinking that the donkey is their mascot, because the donkey is the only form of transportation they might approve of nowadays. It's hard to imagine anyone in the transportation field being so self-destructive as to vote Democrat today, and yet, many still do. Consider:
CAFE standards were originally designed to encourage automakers to strive for fuel efficiency, and they worked; the average car, van, and truck today are all far more fuel-efficient than in the dawn of this campaign back in the 1970s. But, as with so many things that produced early success, the left has refused to declare victory and leave well enough alone. Instead, the Democrats have continually demanded better, well past the collection of low-hanging fruit of the early days, beyond passing the point of diminishing returns.
Today, every additional improvement in fuel efficiency comes at the cost of safety and affordability. The hybrid can cost a third more money for a third less room, the electric vehicle almost geometrically more so. And yet the Democrats charge up that hill, year after year.
The Obama administration's 2010 and 2011 CAFE standards, for example, require medium- and heavy-duty trucks to improve by yet another 9 to 23 percent by 2018. Even more outrageous, the passenger vehicle fleet fuel economy must double by 2025, to reach a 54.5 mpg average! What will that do to driver safety? to passenger safety? to the accounting of an already difficult profession? to the cost of goods that must include the cost of their transportation to the store's shelves?
CAFE standards are killing Detroit, making cars, vans, and trucks more expensive, infecting both private and public vehicle use with crippling costs and risk.
Hours of Service
Consider the newly issued Hours of Service rules for professional drivers, implemented on January 1, 2012 (though with a year's grace period to allow for the utter restructuring of the trucking business...no exaggeration). You know how you plan long drives, sometimes even simple errands, by the traffic you'll confront? Well, truckers do the same.
Truckers strive to do their major driving when traffic is the lightest, particularly over-the-road long-distance drivers. The federal Hours of Service requirements stipulate how long drivers can go at a single stretch, how long their breaks and sleep times must be, how soon they can return to the road, and how many hours per week they can total.
The complexity of the process has left the old rules, which were in place for years; the last Republican administration issued a careful, measured update in 2003 that balances the issues carefully, conscious of the havoc that a more severe limitation could wreak on the trucking business. Lacking such concern, the Obama administration didn't allow that complexity to hold back the release of a massive change that reduces the number of hours a trucker is allowed on the road each week while mandating a draconian 34-hour restart rule, costing drivers their livelihood and likely costing many trucking companies their very businesses if the changes aren't repealed.
The new rules will increase road congestion (especially in already congested metro areas), require restructuring of the Less-Than-Truckload (LTL) industry, and jeopardize the financial viability of many trucking companies and of more individual drivers. The new regulations require breaks and sleep time at frequently illogical times, adding both cost and time to transportation and keeping drivers away from their families by anywhere from ten to thirty percent more time, without an ounce of benefit to anyone in particular or to society in general. The American Trucking Association and other industry groups have announced their intent to challenge the new rules in court, to defend the transportation industry and the community at large from this outrage.
LTL truckers must plan their routes for the number of hours they can legally drive. They locate their national footprint of hubs and regional terminals along the interstates, with an eye to maximizing their drivers' time, considering the law, drive time, the drivers' needs for rest and dinner, and the traffic congestion of different times of day. By adjusting downward the number of hours that drivers can operate on one trip, they don't just create a need for the hiring of more drivers; they create a need to close and relocate terminals, all over the country, at massive cost, or leave them in place and double freight costs and inefficiency, in the midst of a recession, no less!
One of the unnoticed provisions of NAFTA at the time (in 1993) was an agreement to allow U.S., Mexican, and Canadian trucks and truck drivers to operate throughout all three countries, under certain conditions. Changing trucks at the border is often expensive and cumbersome; allowing cargo to remain in the same truck from origin to destination is often more efficient, reducing the freight cost borne by the consumer.
The USA and Canada have enjoyed such reciprocity for years without incident; our trucks are in similar condition, and our drivers are similarly talented and similarly compensated. The same simply cannot be said for Mexican truckers. Their drivers and their equipment alike have more average flaws than U.S. and Canadian drivers and vehicles. As Mexico doesn't enforce nearly the same level of expectations on their trucking companies as we do, their truckers are too often a low-cost competitor on our roads -- one that brings risks of vehicle failure and driver error along for the ride. They don't have our legally mandated burdens of upkeep or anti-pollution efficiency; they don't have our standards of HazMat or safety training.
And what of the reciprocity issue? U.S. and Canadian roads are safe for Mexican drivers; the same can hardly be said of Mexico, where drivers need guards running shotgun just to have a prayer of survival, where parts of the countryside are populated by bandits more powerful than the police. Even if allowed under a reciprocity agreement, most U.S. and Canadian drivers don't dare drive down there; their insurance policies wouldn't allow them to, any more than their families would.
Both the Clinton and Bush administrations put off implementation of the trucking reciprocity agreement, on all the grounds summarized here. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations agreed that Mexican roads and Mexican truckers just aren't ready for that kind of reciprocity -- someday, maybe, but not yet. It's up to Mexico; when their roads are safe enough for our drivers, and their trucks are safe enough for our roads, we'll implement that part of the deal, and no sooner.
The Obama administration has dismissed all of the above and welcomed in hundreds of thousands of Mexican competitors to our trucking market, without regard to safety, pollution standards, or competition issues. How can any long-haul driver in the United States support an administration determined to destroy his business?
The High Cost of Fuel
Gasoline, diesel, and airplane fuel have all skyrocketed under the Obama administration, but the reasons why predate our current president.
For decades, the Democratic Party has fought oil drilling in virtually every manner possible. They have promulgated unjustified fears of alleged environmental dangers; they have used regulatory agencies to thwart our own economic progress; they have established front groups to tie up legitimate drilling in the courts.
As a result, we haven't built a new refinery in the United States in over a generation. We have the largest shale oil deposits in the world, the Bakken oil fields; massive offshore reserves on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts; and huge untapped pools of oil under the frozen tundra of ANWR. The Democrats have done everything they can, using every tool at their disposal, both legal and illegal, to stop America from even approaching self-sufficiency in petroleum. Truckers, taxicab drivers, vacationers, and commuters all suffer, as the increased price of fuel adds to the cost of goods at the store, the cost of doing business for the transportation industry...the very cost of living for us all.
We have doubled our energy needs, but we lack the increased production, forcing us to unnecessarily import the balance from unfriendly nations half a world away. Why? Because of the illogical war on petroleum and its derivatives waged by the Democratic Party.
Petroleum-based fuel is safer and more efficient than ever before, and could -- and should -- be far cheaper, but for the roadblocks that the Democratic Party has put in its way. This isn't just the position of the occasional minority member of their caucus, a rogue Al Gore or Paul Ehrlich off on the fringe. No, the all-out attack on the oil business is a direct and official assault by the Democratic Party. And that assault is, by extension, an assault on everyone who depends on oil, from the roughnecks on drilling rigs to the chemists at the refineries, from the assembly line workers at Detroit and Moline who build the vehicles to the drivers nationwide who drive them.
A One-Two Punch to American Manufacturing
Virtually as soon as the Obama administration began, it landed two distinct blows on the American automotive manufacturing industry.
First was the unconstitutional forced restructuring of GM and Chrysler. A proper bankruptcy would have spread the pain equally among current and former employees, stockholders, and vendors. To pay off its allies in the UAW, the administration forced a non-bankruptcy restructuring on both, closing down some 3,000 auto dealers, weakening or destroying thousands of vendors by defaulting on their receivables, cheating bondholders, arranging a fraudulent stock swap that had the taxpayer absorb the majority of losses, and utterly avoiding the desperately needed reforms to their contractual compensation and pension plans.
This was welcomed by the UAW, as they thought it saved both their jobs and their benefits, but now they're beginning to realize that, since it didn't strengthen their employers, it's all just made their long-term future even more tenuous than it was in 2008...especially the employees of Chrysler, which the Obama administration forced into acquisition by Fiat, the official auto company of one of Europe's most bankrupt economies.
The auto workers of America are, after all, still dependent for their salaries and benefits upon strong employer financials, and upon a strong stock market in which their pensions are invested. All these are suffering as ObamaCare and other increases in taxes and regulations take their toll on the American business climate.
The second punch in 2009 was the notorious Cash for Clunkers program, a peculiar grant program in which the federal government gave people four or five thousand dollars to destroy their old cars and buy new, more fuel-efficient ones.
While that sounded like a costly and foolish but relatively harmless program at first, its results were soon proven to be disastrous indeed. Hundreds of thousands of people who had never considered anything but an American car were now paid by their government to destroy their American cars and buy little Japanese and Korean ones instead. People who were the core of Detroit's clientele -- derisively referring to foreign econoboxes with the pejorative "rice-burners" for generations -- were now paid by their own government to overcome that prejudice and buy foreign.
In addition, by removing hundreds of thousands of used cars from the roads (a condition of the deal was the destruction of the old car), the program raised the cost of other used cars for lower-income car-buyers, while dealing a fatal blow to many auto repair businesses dependent on used cars for service. In a normal recession, the Midases and Merlins and Car-Xs of the world prosper, because people take care of their old cars longer due to their inability to buy new ones. The Cash for Clunkers project chose to sacrifice the used car market and its service industry, in exchange for...what? A tiny blip in new car sales, the vast majority being Asian imports. Amazing.
At every level, the Democratic Party -- not just the Obama administration, but their congressional leadership and the green front groups that they've spawned throughout the land -- assaults everyone involved in transportation on a daily basis. Their willful choices have raised the cost of fuel, hammered our manufacturing sector, made work more costly, and rendered vacationing prohibitive.
And all this is without even considering the other tangential effects of their policies. The excessive importation of oil wreaks havoc on our currency, our foreign policy, our investments. The ARRA "stimulus" doubled the cost of federal highway repairs, through Davis-Bacon-style labor requirements, providing half as many repairs as the money should have produced. And the Obama recession leaves cities, counties, and states too strapped for upkeep of their own existing roadways, let alone for building new ones, driving up toll and tax rates. With every misstep, they make driving more painful, dangerous, and costly for everyone.
How can anyone in transportation still vote Democrat? Only by shutting one's eyes to reality.
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer. A former chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party, his columns appear regularly in IllinoisReview.com.
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