DEREGULATION'S WORST ENEMIES are often those who claim to be its greatest friends. For no one is that more true than Heather J. Gradison, the chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Mrs. Gradison's term on the commission expired Dec. 31, but she has made it clear that she would like another term in the job. If President Bush is serious about promoting greater competition in transportation, he should find someone else to run the agency.
During her seven-year tenure at the ICC, which she has headed since 1985, Mrs. Gradison has been a strong supporter of the economic reforms Congress approved in 1980. She deserves credit for furthering deregulation in the once tightly controlled trucking and railroad industries. But in her zeal to loosen regulatory strings, the chairman has neglected the agency's mandate to serve as an impartial arbiter of disputes between transportation companies and their customers. Instead of resolving problems, the ICC too often has enflamed them. The commission's conduct has given strength to the forces of re-regulation.Unfortunately, Mrs. Gradison has failed to grasp a fundamental truth: Deregulation does not mean no regulation. When Congress gave railroads more freedom to set their own rates in the 1980 Staggers Act, it expected the
commission to protect shippers who were captive to a single railroad. But the agency refused to take any of their complaints seriously, requiring shippers to run an expensive obstacle course to press claims of rate-gouging.
Mrs. Gradison's actions served mainly to encourage pro-regulation shippers to seek congressional intervention. CSX Corp. President John W. Snow, no opponent of deregulation, commented last May that a fight over the Staggers Act was inevitable because railroads won too many victories before the ICC. ''You're not supposed to bat 1.000," Mr. Snow observed.
With little prospect of a fair hearing at the ICC, shippers launched a major campaign on Capitol Hill to amend the Staggers Act. Last year, they came dangerously close to succeeding. The battle will continue in 1989, although the commission suddenly has settled a few rate cases now that Mrs. Gradison is seeking renomination.
The chairman rarely has displayed the ability to compromise that her high post demands. Her dogmatism has riled Congress and alienated opponents. Internal frictions among the commissioners are so great that the commission does most of its business without meeting.
There is also reason to question Mrs. Gradison's judgment in the myriad cases involving railroad labor issues.
The law gives the ICC the power to protect the jobs of workers when a railroad is sold. Mrs. Gradison has never supported the use of that power. The
commission's position has encouraged large railroads to sell off pieces to ''short line" roads in order to circumvent collective bargaining arrangements. Even in cases in which the sale carries covenants making the short line entirely dependent upon the parent railroad, the ICC has allowed the short line to impose layoffs and work rules that the parent could not have introduced without union concurrence.
The commission's recent decision to undercut a respected arbitrator's ruling in a Guilford Transportation Industries Inc. labor dispute provides fresh evidence of the chairman's intemperate treatment of a difficult issue. The arbitrator made no egregious errors that justified commission intervention; his ruling was changed chiefly because a majority of the commissioners did not like the outcome. Their action, which weakened a near- total victory for rail labor, already has sparked a threat of congressional oversight into the ICC's handling of the case. Congress may even choose to mandate a settlement.
Even in the trucking industry, where there have been fewer regulatory showdowns of late, Mrs. Gradison has managed to create controversy. The chairman sensibly favors elimination of the trucking industry's collective rate-making process, which allows groups of companies to set some freight prices jointly, subject to commission review. Yet, this type of rate setting is legal and Mrs. Gradison has a duty to judge collectively proposed rates impartially. Her routine rejection of these group rate proposals - only to approve the same increase when it is filed later by an individual company - casts doubts on her objectivity.
Mrs. Gradison is not entirely to blame for the commission's failings. She holds only one vote on a five-member board. But she has been the ideological champion of the agency's most questionable decisions.
The Interstate Commerce Commission maintains many vestiges of regulation that should be shed. But abolishing them is the duty of Congress. Until it does so, the ICC's members have a legal responsibility to enforce the existing law impartially. Heather Gradison has failed to do so. She has not earned renomination.