"The White House is singing the blues," according to one of the rubber industry´s top political experts.
But that doesn´t necessarily mean the tune the Democrats are singing is more upbeat, said Isabel H. Jasinowski, Good-year vice president of government relations. She spoke at the 22nd Annual Clemson Tire Industry Conference.
Particularly during these unsettled political times, the tire industry must remain vigilant on the legislative front and be prepared to counter any government proposals that could prove harmful to the business, Jas-inowski said.
"There´s an old saying that government does two things well-nothing and overreacting," she said. The industry had a practical demonstration of that during the congressional hearings in 2000 that led to enactment of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act, she said, and that experience underscored the necessity of a proactive industry government relations effort.
"The better we can stay at the head of the curve, the better off we are," she said.
Between the war in Iraq, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, ethics scandals and high gas prices, President Bush is facing the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, Jasinowski said. As of March 16, only 34 percent of the U.S. electorate approved of the president, and only 33 percent found him honest and straightforward. "The Bush administration can´t seem to do anything right, which is a sharp contrast from the president´s first term," she said.
Yet congressional Democrats are failing to take advantage of the White House´s doldrums, largely because of weak leadership and the lack of a unified message, according to Jasinowski. A recent poll showed Republicans with an approval rating of 44 percent and a disapproval rating of 47 percent; Democrats´ ratings were 47 percent approval, 42 percent disapproval.
"What we appear to be seeing in the American electorate is cynicism and disapproval of all leaders, not just Bush," she said. "It´s not so much an anti-politics as an anti-Washington sentiment."
The lack of a clear advantage for either party makes the 2006 congressional elections a little hard to predict, Jasinowski said. It would be a stretch for the Democrats to regain the majority in the Senate, because they would have to pick up six seats there, she said. Regaining the House of Representatives is a better possibility for them, but that too is a challenge with 15 seats to gain.
"Statistics make you realize the power of incumbents," Jasinowski said. House members have a 90-percent re-election rate, while the success rate for incumbents in the Senate is 88 percent.
In any case, the election year and the political situation mean a short, fairly uneventful session of Congress, according to Jasinowski. Nevertheless, the executive said tire makers will have to be on the lookout for industry-specific legislation in both Congress and state legislatures, from "swing" voters who are looking for safety and environmental causes to stand out from the crowd.
"The low-hanging fruit is gone," she said. "The oil, chemical and auto industries have all been regulated, so they´re looking at smaller industries such as ours."
Replacement tire fuel efficiency is becoming a major issue in state legislatures, Jasinowski said. California, having passed a replacement tire fuel efficiency requirement, now is studying the feasibility of such a plan, and eight other state legislatures have considered or are considering similar bills.
Two New York Democrats-Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Eliot Engel-are sponsoring bills to mandate low rolling resistance in replacement tires, Jasinowski said. The industry will work to support a federal approach to the rolling resistance question, with one rating system for consumers, she said.
State scrap tire legislation also will remain an issue for the industry to watch. She said the scrap tire issue has been an industry success story, with a projected 84 percent of all scrap tires reaching proper disposal this year.
But in 2001, during the last recession, many states redirected the tire fees earmarked for scrap tire abatement to their general funds.
"The industry was caught off guard by this, and the scrap tire program lost ground," she said.
Yet skillful industry lobbying in Ohio, Texas and Georgia persuaded legislatures there to redirect scrap tire funds to their original purpose.
The tire industry will continue to assist states in solving scrap tire problems, educating legislators on the importance of preserving scrap tire dollars for tire disposal, and striving to preserve tire-derived fuel as a legally permissible use for scrap tires, Jasinowski said.