The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee called yesterday for sweeping regulatory reform of the nation's ocean shipping industry and vowed to continue his fight to push railroad reform legislation through Congress.
In addition, Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) told a National Industrial Transportation League (NITL) policy forum in Washington that he doesn't plan to lessen his efforts to require that FedEx Corp.'s air express operations be reclassified under a different labor statute. Oberstar's proposal, included in the House version of a funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, would put employees of FedEx's air unit—other than pilots and aircraft mechanics—under the National Labor Relations Act, the labor law governing trucking. The unit is currently governed by the Railway Labor Act, which covers airlines and railroads.
"I've spoken on that issue and it's in our bill," he told reporters. The Senate version of the legislation does not contain the Oberstar proposal. House and Senate conferees are currently reconciling the two versions of the FAA funding bill.
Oberstar said he will seek to end immunity that steamship lines currently have from antitrust laws to set prices and vessel-sharing arrangements. Oberstar also said he would crack down on carrier surcharges, saying surcharges are "not always a reflection" of carriers' costs. The lawmaker said Congress needs to take a hard look at the authority carriers have to impose the surcharges, how much advance notice they give shippers, and the justification for the surcharges.
Oberstar also called on the Federal Maritime Commission to establish a "customer advocate" department that would develop guidelines for resolving shipper-carrier disputes by arbitration rather than going through the courts or through the legislative process.
Taking aim at the railroads, Oberstar said the industry has gone from dozens of large, so-called Class I, carriers when Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act in 1980 to deregulate the industry, to four large U.S. rails today. Those four, he said, control over 90 percent of the nation's rail traffic. "There is less competition and more complaints" about rail rates and service from shippers, Oberstar said.
Oberstar said he will work to develop a companion bill in the House to the legislation (S. 2889) that was passed in mid-December by the Senate Commerce Committee. The bill, sponsored by Committee Chairman Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), provides protections to "captive shippers" who cannot use any other transport mode; improves shippers' access to other carriers' trackage and terminals; and expands the membership of the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that rules on rail mergers, from three to five. It is considered the most comprehensive piece of rail reform legislation since the Staggers Act. Shippers have lauded the bill, while the railroads, worried about a move toward re-regulation, have urged what they call a more balanced approach to address shipper concerns.
Oberstar added that he will work with the Senate to push existing railroad reform legislation through Congress and straight to President Obama's desk for signature without the bill's going through the bicameral conference procedure.
Oberstar's comments came at a forum sponsored by the nation's oldest and largest shipper group. But carrier interests at the forum quickly hit back. Christopher Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, which represents steamship lines, said carriers operate in trades where no antitrust immunity exists, and said rates have actually risen in non-U.S. trades like Europe where antitrust immunity was repealed. Koch also noted that many shipper-carrier contracts expressly prohibit the imposition of surcharges, effectively making them a moot point in many cases.
John Wetzel, vice president of congressional affairs for the Association of American Railroads (AAR), said the railroads "are committed to continue a dialogue to come up with solutions to problems that shippers say need to be addressed" while enabling the railroads to generate sufficient revenue so they can invest in maintaining a viable and world-class network.
Wetzel, who was substituting for Ed Hamberger, AAR's president and CEO, said he was told by his boss that the atmosphere would be collegial, relatively non-controversial, and—Hamberger added jokingly—full of love.
After hearing Oberstar's remarks, Wetzel told the gathering, "I'm not sure I'm feeling the love today."