WASHINGTON — The voters´ decision to end Republican control of Congress isn´t something rubber and tire industry trade association officials welcomed. But they aren´t particularly worried about it.
The razor-thin victory by the Democrats in the Senate-by one vote-means the Democrats run the show but don´t control it, according to Donald B. Shea, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association.
"In the Senate you need 60 votes to override a filibuster and proceed to a vote," Shea said. "In the last Congress, the Republicans had 55 seats, and they couldn´t get to the vote with that. It will be even harder with 51."
Democrats are in firmer control in the House, where they gained 30 seats. But even there, a strict Democratic legislative agenda might not be in the cards either, according to Shea.
"What is the period of time for anything to get done?" he said. "People will start looking at the 2008 election rather rapidly, particularly since several members of Congress are looking to be the next president."
Even if the Democrats can push legislation through, Shea said, it will be another thing entirely to make it stick with President George W. Bush still in the White House.
"This has been an administration sparing in its use of veto power," he said. "Will that change? It depends on what comes to the president´s desk."
In any case, the election results have changed the outlook for many of the industry´s legislative and regulatory goals in 2007-but not the goals themselves. And the regulatory agenda of agencies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration remains the same, no matter who controls Congress.
NHTSA and the TREAD Act
Implementation of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act-passed by Congress in October 2000-remains a major concern for the tire industry in general.
For the RMA, the main goal is to make sure all tire makers who make tires for sale in the U.S. comply with all pertinent TREAD Act regulations, especially the early warning reporting and tire testing rules. This is important for distributors and importers as well as manufacturers, according to Shea.
"It´s important for everyone in the industry to know that TREAD Act requirements, particularly early reporting requirements, mandate a responsible entity who is answerable to any problems, and everyone should know who the responsible entity is," he said. "If it´s not the manufacturer, it´s someone in the distribution chain.
"This is something we´ve focused on and will continue to focus on," he said. "Part of it is the education of the industry. We´re not sure that everyone in the distribution chain understands that someone needs to know who the responsible entity is."
For the Tire Industry Association, the main concern is whether NHTSA, under the aegis of the TREAD Act, will mandate a standard for retreaded truck tires, something that has never existed before.
"We´ve started discussions with the Tread Rubber Manufacturing Group and our retreader members on what to do," said Roy Littlefield, TIA executive vice president. "Do we wait, or go in and see about creating an industry-friendly regulation? We have no position yet on this."
The retreading industry continues to have problems with a shortage of casings. This is one of the concerns TIA has about a truck retread safety standard, because it might contain a provision banning casings that don´t bear Department of Transportation symbols, Littlefield said.
The RMA said it has no position on such a provision, but does believe retreaders should have access to as many retreadable casings as they need.
The rule on tire pressure monitoring systems is "a done deal," and the industry is dealing with it, Shea said. Of greater concern at this point is NHTSA´s September 2006 proposal to require electronic stability control systems on all passenger vehicles, starting in 2009 and phasing in the rule through 2012.
What gives tire makers and dealers pause is whether the operation of an ESC system will interfere in any way with the operation of tires, wheels, or-most particularly-TPMS, according to Littlefield.
"We´re trying to avoid the TPMS debacle," he said. "We won´t oppose ESC, because its lifesaving potential is too great. But will NHTSA understand that it needs to take the aftermarket into consideration?"
TIA is meeting with the agency and other industry groups on the ESC issue, he said.
Shea concurred with Littlefield on ESC. "One of our members has said, ´Wouldn´t it make sense to make sure these rules are consonant with each other?´ " he said.
Tire fuel efficiency legislation
The RMA fully expects its tire fuel efficiency bill, which would establish a national tire fuel efficiency education campaign administered by NHTSA, to be back in the 110th Congress with undiminished or increased support.
"Clearly, we think this approach has bipartisan appeal," Shea said. The RMA proposed the bill as an alternative to harsher legislation that would have made the California fuel efficiency rating law nationwide. Supporters of that approach agreed to endorse the RMA-backed bill after a provision was added promising that it would not pre-empt the California law and other state edicts.
Shea doesn´t expect the fuel efficiency bill to move as a stand-alone measure. However, the Democrats are discussing a possible energy bill, he said, and the fuel efficiency bill could be added as a provision to that legislation.
Health care and taxes
Democratic control of the House also means a bleak future for two measures beloved by TIA that fared well in the House in past Congresses: Small Business Health Plans (also known as Association Health Plans), which would allow small business associations to negotiate across state lines for low-cost health insurance policies for their members; and a permanent repeal of the estate tax.
There may be a chance to work on the estate tax when the subject of the alternative minimum tax comes up, Littlefield and Paul Fiore, TIA director of government and business affairs, said. As for small business health plans, they said, there´s always the possibility that someone will come up with a proposal that answers some of the traditional Democratic objections to the plans, such as concerns that they would provide workers with useless, bare-bones health care coverage.
"It´s a stretch to say that there´s bipartisan support for this," Fiore said. "But there´s a lot of support on both sides of the aisle to find ways to reduce the cost of health care."
TIA is watching with great interest the implementation of the Massachusetts bill mandating health care coverage for everyone in the state over age 18, he and Littlefield said.