A rail customers’ rally, held at the outset of a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill, was one part reunion and one part backslapping celebration as shippers and their advocates reveled in what they see as a looming victory in their fight for a rail regulatory reform law.
But the May 5 rally also included one large dose of realism, when the key lawmaker driving the reform effort warned the goal is still out of reach. “Keep the faith,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., told the group. “You are terrific. You are right. But we are not there yet.”
Rockefeller, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, is pushing for a rail competition bill that would shift the rules more toward shippers for the first time since 1980, when deregulation put carriers on the path to financial strength.
After spending 2009 in negotiations among rail executives, shipper groups and regulators, the committee passed a bill in mid-December. But carriers angered by its terms have kept it from moving to a full Senate vote. The House has not taken up its own version.
Before Rockefeller addressed the agriculture, steel, chemicals and utility customers, speakers shared stories about the years they fought to get other members of Congress to understand their concerns. They told each other this would be the year they get the rules changed to force more competition into rail rates and service, and said Rockefeller has a plan to get the measure done in 2010.
Rockefeller stoked their fires at first. “I am not tiring on this legislation,” he said. “I’m not kidding on this legislation. We have to do whatever it takes.” But he also cautioned, “You’ve got to understand this is not over.” Railroads, he said, will not meet him halfway on compromises to get the bill wrapped up.
The estimated 150 shippers were a fraction of the number railroads turned out for their Feb. 25 lobbying day, when officials blanketed lawmakers’ offices to push for tax breaks and warn against setting competition rules that could threaten rail finances.
Railroads also emphasize the role they can plan in easing road congestion and greenhouse gas problems, if they make enough to spend on new capacity. The same week shippers gathered to lobby Congress, the carriers embraced a new study describing them as a “green jobs” industry compared with trucking.
One railroad concern is that Rockefeller plans to add language in a final bill to strip carriers of a limited exemption they enjoy from antitrust challenges, which they have because the Surface Transportation Board decides most carrier-shipper disputes.
Last month, shippers got a boost and railroads a slap when an extensive Agriculture Department report on freight shipping, developed in coordination with the Department of Transportation, urged Congress to revisit antitrust exemptions for railroads and ocean ship lines. Several speakers, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., cited that report as a help to the shipper cause.
Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., said he wouldn’t allow the competition bill to move to the Senate floor unless it removes “this special and undeserved immunity the railroad industry has from antitrust law.” Kohl last year wrote legislation to strip the exemption from rails, but dropped it after he and Rockefeller agreed to add its terms to the broader rail regulatory bill. There had been rumors the Commerce bill might finally move without that clause in order to win railroad support, but Kohl made clear he would fight any such effort.
Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.