Earlier today, the Senate voted on and passed S.1813 – the body’s version of the long-stalled highway bill. Last week, the Senate was finally able to come to agreement on an assortment of amendments that would be considered prior to voting on the overall transportation package. Given that the transportation bill has been the business of the Senate for several weeks now, there have been a number of deals brokered off the Senate floor on small changes that are agreeable to each party. The Senate voted on around 30 amendments to the bill before holding the final vote on passage of the measure this afternoon.
A number of the relevant amendments sought to devolve the current federal system back to the states. Each of the measures failed. Two amendments providing exemptions (Merkley 1814 and Klobuchar 1617) for the agriculture community from hours-of-service and other motor carrier safety requirements were passed on voice votes.
The Merkley amendment – 1814 – is intended to allow farmers and ranchers to cross state borders to access the nearest processing facility. The language exempts farm trucks (“covered farm vehicles”) from federal safety regulations when they are moving crops, livestock, or equipment. The exemption applies when they are moving within 150 miles of their farm or within their state. The exemption applies to CDL requirements, medical exams and certificates, hours of service, and vehicle inspection and maintenance. In place of federal interstate trucking rules, states would be able to establish safety rules for these vehicles.
The Klobuchar amendment – 1617 – exempts vehicles moving farm commodities and supplies from hours-of-service regulations during planting and harvest seasons. This amendment reestablishes a blanket exemption that had been in place until a few years ago, until FMCSA limited it to anhydrous ammonia – a volatile farm supply. The exemption expands the waiver back to all movements of farm commodities within 100 miles of the property, including movements from wholesale to retail.
CVSA sent a letter to Members of the Senate strongly opposing the two agriculture amendments. However, the measures had support from the agriculture community, as well as ATA, and in the end they passed. The language from both amendments is included in the original House bill – HR 7 – making inclusion in a final bill, if passed, almost assured. CVSA staff will continue to push the issue with Congressional staff, but it’s unlikely that the exemptions will be removed at this point. We do have an amendment in the House, sponsored by Congressman Hank Johnson, which requires a study of the impact of such exemptions. We will continue to promote this amendment. If included, it could provide a springboard for addressing exemptions in future legislation.
While work is now complete on the Senate’s bill, there is still plenty to be done. Should the House pass a transportation bill (and that is NOT a given at this point), the two chambers will still need to appoint conferees to reconcile the two versions. The current program expires on March 31st and the House is out of session this week. This makes House passage and conference prior to the deadline essentially impossible. Therefore, despite passing their transportation measure, the Senate will likely still have to negotiate and approve an extension of some duration prior to the end of the month.
Meanwhile, the path forward on the House side remains unclear. Before adjourning for a district work period this week, House leadership tried unsuccessfully to generate the necessary votes to pass any sort of transportation measure. The original 5-year measure was scrapped, briefly, in hopes of passing a shorter bill that spent less money. However, the votes weren’t there for that type of a bill either and leadership has returned to the drawing board. Currently, House leaders are trying to negotiate a series of adjustments to the original 5-year bill that would yield the necessary 218 votes, this time reaching across party lines to try and attract Democrat support. Whether or not they will be successful remains to be seen.
At some point, negotiations on the longer term bill will have to be set aside so that the House can come to agreement on an extension. There is likely to be a lot of outreach between leadership in both parties on both sides of the Hill in order to come to some resolution on the immediate issue – the extension. However, there will inevitably be disagreements over length and substance of the extension (small policy changes versus NO changes aside from the date) and resolving those matters will take some time. Like a number of extensions in the past, this one will likely come down to an 11th hour deal, so that Members can continue to exert pressure over their key issues.