Not too long ago, after more than two decades of efforts to deregulate the transportation market, it appeared that the regulatory battles were over and that we were entering a period of relative stability. Organizations whose core mission was advocacy on Capitol Hill began to wonder about their future and started shifting their focus toward education.
Economic regulation has been scaled back sharply, starting with the airlines in 1978, followed by the railroads, the trucking industry and even the arcane and mysterious maritime industry. But it turns out the argument over regulation hasn't ended. Instead, it's shifted to other areas—most notably the environment, public safety and, most recently, national security.
One issue that appeared relatively settled until just a few weeks ago was just how many hours truck drivers can work each week. The latest rules, which evolved out of a robust and wide-ranging debate, were years in development. Now, they're back on the table after a federal court of appeals threw them out. (See our story back to the drawing board.)
Those rules, rules governing truck emissions and commercial drivers licenses, security rules governing advance notification for imports or container inspection or food safety … all are quite different from the old debates over such things as truckers' operating authorities. Yet the questions are no less serious, no less contentious and no less complex.
Of course, regulatory issues that are predominantly economic have hardly disappeared. A proceeding now in front of the Federal Maritime Commission seeks to give non-vessel operating carriers the same rights to offer customers confidential contracts that vessel operators enjoy. Those sorts of disputes will always be with us.
Some might argue that government should simply get out of the way and let the market sort it all out, but few would deny that with the complex issues, we need some entity to set the rules and to act as referee. The question, I'd suggest, is not whether there should be rules, but what those rules should be—how to best balance the public interest with private interests.
The issue of our regulatory structure rarely gets top billing during an election campaign, especially when topics like war, security and the economy's health are on the table.Yet as arcane and remote as the issues may seem, those rulemakings have a real effect on how we all do business, and they merit attention.