WASHINGTON-1995 was the first year since the early 1950s that Republicans had control of both houses of Congress. Led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other conservative crusaders, the GOP began the most ambitious program of government reform since the New Deal. Many of Mr. Gingrich's pet projects in his ``Contract with America'' were sidetracked in his protracted battle with President Clinton over the national budget. Overall, however, the Republican campaign proved amazingly successful-particularly for a Congress so replete with freshman members.
For tire manufacturers and independent dealers, the GOP revolution generally meant something they long had wanted: that their battle cry, ``Get government off our backs!'' was finally being heeded by key people in government.
The Clinton administration itself offered programs to cut paperwork and compliance burdens, but the Republican initiatives were more along the lines of what business really wants.
Some of the major governmental issues that concerned the tire industry this year included:
Regulatory reform. All industry favored the promise of the ``Contract with America'' to require cost-benefit analyses, peer review and risk assessment for every new regulation and a large number of existing ones.
President Clinton's 25-point reform plan included a 25-percent paperwork reduction, increased use of negotiation and consensus in writing regulations and a six-month grace period for small businesses to correct violations. The rubber industry called it ``a step in the right direction,'' but there was no question they preferred the GOP plan.
Congressional efforts to pass regulatory reform ran into trouble during 1995-most recently in November, when President Clinton vetoed a balanced-budget bill that contained amendments to enact most of the Republicans' favorite regulatory reform provisions.
Product liability. Product liability reform-long a hotly contested issue-is of special interest to industry, which hates the current patchwork of state laws and enormous jury awards for sometimes negligible liability.
Opposition from Democrats, trial lawyers and consumer advocates stymied any movement on tort reform for 14 years. The Republican majority in both houses, however, was able to pass product liability reform legislation in 1995.
There are major differences to reconcile between the two versions, however. Both limit punitive damages to $250,000, repeal joint-and-several liability, provide a statute of repose (15 years in the House bill; 20 in the Senate version) and provide an absolute defense for manufacturers if the plaintiff's drug or alcohol abuse is mostly at fault for an accident.
The House bill, however, extends the punitive damage cap to all civil suits. And the Senate bill would allow judges at their discretion to lift the cap if they feel the manufacturer was particularly reckless.
At year-end the House-Senate conference group on tort reform had yet to meet, but the bill is likely to be completed in 1996.
Rolling resistance grading for tires. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed replacing the temperature resistance grade of the Uniform Tire Quality Grading System with a rolling resistance/fuel economy grade.
NHTSA took this action at the behest of the Clinton administration, which said stressing low rolling resistance and fuel economy in tires would save millions of barrels of fuel and cut auto carbon dioxide emissions measurably.
Agency hearings in July revealed deep divisions within the tire industry on this issue. Michelin North America said the proposed grade would merely encourage tire makers to make the same low-rolling-resistance tires available on the replacement market that they regularly provide to their automaker customers.
Other tire makers, however, claimed the proposed grade would be expensive to implement and would encourage the manufacture of tires that stressed low rolling resistance over good traction. They also accused Michelin of having an ulterior motive-pushing its own advanced low-rolling-resistance technology.
Finally, in October, Congress passed and President Clinton signed a Transportation Department appropriations bill that forbade NHTSA from using its fiscal year 1996 funds to promulgate the rolling resistance grade.
Superfund. Promised a full repeal of retroactive liability for Superfund hazardous site cleanups, the industry was disappointed when Republican leaders-citing a lack of funds to pay for such a sweeping program-proposed a system of credits instead.
The Senate Superfund bill proposes a 50-percent tax credit to reimburse potentially responsible parties for retroactive cleanup costs. The House package offers a ``retroactive liability discount'' of 30 to 50 percent.
The House bill became more palatable to small businesses in November when a package of amendments to protect small waste generators from liability was added. Penalties for large companies that bring groundless third-party Superfund lawsuits against small firms was part of the package, as were exemptions for waste generators who contribute less than 1 percent of the total waste at any Superfund site.
Despite the objections of environmentalists and Democratic legislators, the bill has progressed to the full House Commerce Committee, which was poised to act on it in December.
The U.S. vs. Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. In January 1995, when Bridgestone/Firestone hired 2,300 workers to replace strikers at five facilities, it attracted the ire of President Clinton and Labor Secretary Robert Reich. On March 8, Mr. Clinton signed an executive order forbidding any company that had hired striker replacements from holding federal contracts.
Bridgestone/Firestone-together with co-plaintiffs such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers-sued the government to stop implementation of the order. So far, the company has succeeded in obtaining a temporary restraining order pending the case's outcome.
Asphalt rubber. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Effi-ciency Act of 1991 contained a pro-vision-Section 1038-designed to encourage the use of crumb-rubber-modified asphalt by state highway officials.
The most controversial part of Section 1038 was Subsection (d), which required states to use an ever-increasing percentage of asphalt rubber as a prerequisite for keeping federal highway funds. State highway officials and conventional asphalt makers complained of the forced use of a technology that was, they claimed, overpriced and unproven.
Transportation Department funding bills for fiscal years 1994 and 1995 contained amendments blocking the Federal Highway Administration from spending any money to promote or enforce Section 1038. The FY 1996 DOT bill, however, achieved a compromise that had both sides claiming victory: It rescinded Subsection (d) while retaining provisions to provide funds to the states for research and technology transfer in asphalt rubber.
Enhanced vehicle emissions inspections. Since 1994, many states who come under the Clean Air Act's directions for enhanced inspection/maintenance programs have rebelled against the Environmental Protection Agency's insistence on centralized, test-only inspection centers and the high-tech ``IM240'' dynanometer test.
Complaints by auto repairers who suddenly found themselves saddled with thousands of dollars worth of useless emissions testing equipment were matched by those of consumers, who often found ill-trained, ill-informed personnel at centralized testing centers.
The National Highway System bill signed by President Clinton in November answers these objections. It forbids the EPA from forcing states to use the IM240 test, and also prevents it from applying a 50-percent reduction in allowable emissions reductions credits from states that allow decentralized testing.
Under the NHS bill, the EPA must accept good-faith estimates of emissions reductions in interim testing program plans submitted by the states within 120 days of the bill's enactment. States can make those plans permanent if they can produce data from the interim program showing the estimates are accurate.
Low-emission vehicles. The EPA proposed a program suggested by the auto industry for requiring low-emission vehicles in all states except California. This program would be less stringent than the ``CalLEV'' standard, which requires that 2 percent of all the vehicles sold in California must be zero-emission-i.e. electric-vehicles by 2002.
The Ozone Transport Commission, comprising 12 Northeastern states and the District of Columbia, already has decided in principle to adopt the CalLEV standards to meet its emissions reduction obligations under the Clean Air Act. New York has passed legislation to implement the plan.
Whatever the EPA decides to do on this issue will have tremendous significance for auto technicians, who must keep up with the changing designs for auto engines. At year-end, the agency still was considering comments on its low-emission proposal.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA reform was part of President Clinton's 25-point government reform plan, and it also has a high place on the Republican agenda in Congress.
Currently, there are OSHA reform bills in the House and Senate that seek to redirect the agency's activities toward voluntary compliance and government-industry cooperation. The two bills, however, have significant differences.
The House bill would abolish several OSHA departments, such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The Senate bill would keep the agency's structure intact, but contains more provisions than the House version to specifically protect small business.
Although industry is encouraged by both bills, the Clinton administration feels both go too far, and organized labor claims they would leave U.S. workers without fundamental safety protection.
Transportation Department reorganization. DOT Secretary Federico Pe¤a announced his department's restructuring plan in April, in an effort to streamline its operations and promote intermodal transportation.
The most radical part of the plan was to merge seven DOT departments-including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration-into one entity, the Intermodal Transportation Administration. The new ITA would have all the surface transportation and civilian maritime functions of DOT under its aegis.
The FY 1996 DOT appropriations bill gives President Clinton the authority to submit the department's reauthorization plans to Congress and guarantees fast-track consideration, according to a DOT spokesman.
``Congress is open to it (the reauthorization) and will be pursuing it from here,'' he said.