There is an 11th commandment used to guide the work of trade association executives in Washington. To wit, thou shalt not risk angering powerful people by speaking publicly and passionately on an issue.
Only time will tell if Bill Graves violated it.
In an extraordinarily strident speech Monday at the American Trucking Associations' (ATA) annual management conference in Orlando, Fla., Graves excoriated the Republican Party and especially the Tea Party faction for their roles in partially shutting down the federal government for 16 days and bringing the United States perilously close to defaulting on its financial obligations.
And in a stunning comment given his Republican pedigree and the close ties that top truckers have long enjoyed with the GOP, Graves added that "political change is under way and many of the traditional allegiances the business community has had with the Republican Party are necessarily going to need to be re-evaluated."
Graves used his annual "state of the industry" speech, which is normally reserved for addressing trucking-centric matters, to rip the Tea Party for perverting admirable ideas like reducing the nation's debt load and limiting federal government overreach by a "burn the house down" mentality that brooked no compromise or debate. He called the Tea Party's actions "foolish, ill-advised, reckless, and detrimental ... to the future of this country." And in a phrase that may be forever linked to him, Graves said, "If I was your political broker, my advice would be that you sell your Republican shares and buy the Democrats."
Even in a city where harsh rhetoric is like breathing, Graves' comments stood out, especially since they came from the head of a group that normally shies away from public discourse on macro politics and instead focuses on legislative matters that impact the industry. One high-level official was shocked at the tenor and timing of Graves' remarks, noting that many trucking executives are entrepreneurial businessmen at heart and support the Tea Party's objectives, if not its tactics.
The official said that all trade association leaders know to keep potentially incendiary views private for fear of alienating both their members and those who wield significant influence in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Going public with these views is a line in the sand, "and Graves clearly crossed it," the official said.
A long-time trucking executive said Graves has already heard from "some members who are very upset" over his remarks. Sean McNally, an ATA spokesman, was unavailable to return an e-mail request for comment.
In his speech, Graves also repeated his call for a diesel fuel tax increase to help fund the nation's infrastructure needs. Graves cited recent comments from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who once opposed raising fuel taxes, advocating a tax hike. The 24.4-cents-a-gallon tax on diesel fuel has not been raised since 1993.
"Our position in support of a fuel tax increase is absolutely the right position to take—and everyone on Capitol Hill knows it—they all know it," Graves said in his prepared remarks. "Ray LaHood always knew it, the President knows it, every member of Congress knows it; we're just fighting the plague of intellectual amnesia that's overwhelmed Washington on this and so many other issues."
Fuel taxes are the primary source of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund, which finances infrastructure projects. However, the revenue stream doesn't come close to supporting the nation's growing infrastructure needs, and over the past decade, Congress has diverted more than $50 billion in general revenue to the Trust Fund to keep projects going.
The July 2012 law reauthorizing highway programs expires next October, and hardly anyone expects a new deal to be struck by then, especially with the mid-year congressional elections around the corner. James H. Burnley IV, a former secretary of transportation and today head of the transportation practice at Washington law firm Venable LLP, said at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals' Annual Global Conference in Denver this week that lawmakers may agree to an extension around the September-October time frame, but unless the Democrats win both houses of Congress, that would be the only one. Burnley, a staunch Republican, said Republicans have no appetite for raising taxes or for funneling any more general revenues into the Trust Fund.
Graves also took a whack at the railroad industry's "Freight Rail Works" marketing and advertising strategy, asking that "if it works so well, why does it require a $100 million ad campaign to tell everyone it works?" The trucking industry is collectively the railroad industry's largest customer. ATA, for its part, has launched its own image-building initiative, albeit on a much smaller budget.