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The shutdown, shippers and sleepy truckers

By Brandon Fried on November 26, 2013

Freight and the Recent Government Shutdown

My morning commute is roughly a seven-mile journey that takes 45 minutes in typical Washington, D.C., bumper-to-bumper traffic. The trip tends to vary based on the number of backups caused by motorcades whisking high-ranking government officials to work. There is normally some blessed relief to this during the Christmas season and in late summer, when many workers leave our transient city to return to their home cities or towns, thereby clearing the roads and cutting the travel time significantly.

The recent 16-day federal government shutdown was another way to cut my commuting time, as federal agencies sent 800,000 employees home and the U.S. took a hit in its GDP growth.

But, unless they also happen to work in the Washington area, forwarders seemed to experience little direct effect from the shutdown. Air traffic continued to fly as the Federal Aviation Administration staffed control towers, customs inspectors staffed ports of entry and air cargo was screened thanks to a hard-fought legislative provision allowing private sector enterprises to perform the task. Had the law required the Transportation Security Administration to perform all the screening, there is no telling how badly the furloughs would have messed things up.

Many shippers and importers, however, struggled through the shutdown as crucial regulators such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture furloughed those workers who normally process the necessary documentation for import clearance and export licensing.  With 40 agencies involved in trade shipments – and 14 with direct “release and hold” authority – many shipments encountered delays. While Customs and Border Protection cut only 6,000 of its 58,000 workers and maintained port staffing, overall service suffered, as contingent agencies were not available to provide final clearance for a large percentage of shipments.

A recent report indicates that the shutdown cost the U.S. economy at least US$24 billion (17.8 billion euros). This comes at a time when the nation is on an extremely slow recovery of one of the worst recessions ever. Most importantly, consumer and business confidence has eroded since many are concerned about another possible shutdown in January and a borrowing power limit looming in February.

Shippers, forwarders and other transportation providers have every right to feel exasperated with the conduct of our government. Reducing federal spending, the national debt and regulations are laudable goals to be sure, but our elected representatives have got to find a way to make progress without holding critical government functions and important industries hostage. With more budget and debt deadlines looming, let’s hope that congressional leaders and the White House can come up with a new approach to governing that focuses on reasoned compromise and avoids the continual funding crises that aren’t doing anyone any good.

A More Sensible Approach to Sleep Apnea Risk

Given all the acrimony on Capitol Hill, one might think nothing good or useful is getting done. But that’s not the case. Thanks to a bipartisan effort, Congress swiftly drafted and passed – and President Barack Obama signed – legislation ensuring that the Department of Transportation will not bypass the formal rulemaking process when it takes up the issue of obstructive sleep apnea and its effect on truck drivers.

This law came in response to an advisory issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) that it would not conduct a rulemaking and would instead issue a “guidance” on screening of commercial drivers for sleep apnea based on their body mass index and other factors. Estimates indicate that the testing alone would have cost the industry nearly US$1 billion (741 million euros).

This is not to minimize the potentially harmful and dangerous effects of sleep apnea and its effect on the operation of commercial vehicles. However, leaving a solution to a federal agency to provide guidance – as opposed to a transparent rulemaking process providing an essential public comment process that examines all aspects of a proposed regulation before its implementation – would not only be expensive but ineffective.

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