WASHINGTON—With sex scandals, impeachment proceedings and midterm elections, Congress had plenty of distractions last year. The result: 1998 was a year of minor legislative achievement, as far as the rubber industry was concerned.
Barring a miracle, Congress will be just as distracted in 1999, spokesmen for tire/rubber industry associations said.
``I think the chances are good to great that it will be more of the same,'' said David E. Poisson, executive vice president of the Tire Association of North America, about the approaching legislative year.
``Trying to handicap a forecast of the 106th Congress is well-nigh impossible,'' added Donald B. Shea, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association. ``The two questions are: How elongated will the impeachment process be—and any reverberations from it—and how soon does Campaign 2000 begin?''
Messrs. Poisson and Shea—along with Roy E. Littlefield III, government relations director for the International Tire and Rubber Association—were interviewed in early December, before the House voted to impeach President Clinton and Speaker-designate Bob Livingston announced his resignation.
In 1999, they agreed, it will be important for their groups to have all necessary groundwork laid when the opportunity arises to lobby on a chosen piece of legislation.
It also is a matter of being choosy about which issues to give priority. ``What happens with a group like ITRA is that you'll get involved with 15 or 20 issues, but you need to concentrate on one or two,'' Mr. Littlefield said.
For what Mr. Shea calls ``macro-issues,'' such as Superfund and product liability, the RMA will join the most effective coalitions it can find. ``We don't have unlimited resources,'' he said. ``We're less interested in who gets credit than in positive results.''
Not surprisingly, all three men were cautious about predicting what will happen in Washington in 1999, but they did offer these thoughts:
Product liability reform and Superfund reauthorization, the two perennial heartbreak issues for the tire industry and industry in general, are likely to remain so in 1999. Product liability reform efforts in 1998 ended with a compromise between the White House and Senate Democrats that satisfied no one, and the controversial issue isn't likely to move when Congress's attention is directed elsewhere.
Superfund may have a chance, Mr. Shea said: ``If any environmental issue is to move, it probably will be Superfund.'' But the association must be vigilant that provisions against whole-tire recyclers don't reappear in 1999, as they did in the end-of-session bill sponsored by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Federal excise taxes have not been levied on new passenger tires since the Surface Transportation Act of 1982. But excise taxes on tires weighing more than 40 pounds—including truck, bus, and off-road tires—remain in effect. Truck tire retreaders count on these taxes to maintain their price advantage over new tires.
Last year, when the House first passed the Building Efficient Surface Transportation & Equity Act (BESTEA), it contained an initiative to end ethanol subsidies to farmers that included repeal of the remaining tire excise taxes as a giveback.
This move was supported by the RMA but opposed by ITRA, which led a grassroots campaign of its members to stop the repeal effort, which did not survive the House-Senate conference on BESTEA.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, is likely to try and rescind ethanol subsidies again this year, Mr. Littlefield said. ``Whether the tire excise tax will remain tied to this is unclear,'' he said.
From a tire-industry prespective, BESTEA, a reauthorization of highway and transportation funding for the states, was perhaps the most important piece of federal legislation enacted in 1998.
As finally passed, it contained several provisions most of the industry wanted: It made more equitable distribution of highway funds among states, redirected gasoline taxes from budget-balancing to highway funding and took the Federal Highway Fund off the federal budget so it could be directed strictly to highways.
Mr. Poisson feels President Clinton will spend the next two years—provided he has them—trying to pass some sort of comprehensive health-care reform. ``He and others in Congress will want to reclaim health care as his legacy,'' he said.
Health care is an important issue for TANA's tire dealer members. The cost of health insurance premiums are expected to rise 25 to 35 percent this year, and with a shortage of auto technicians, more and more shops are forced to offer health insurance as an incentive to new hires.
TANA's chief interest in health-care legislation is in turning back any effort to mandate a ``one-size-fits-all'' worker health-care program its members could ill afford. ``If we are forced to provide health-care coverage, the solution for our people would be to cut down on employment opportunities,'' Mr. Poisson said. ``Anything that smacks of mandated health care is something our members would oppose.''
The RMA is proud of the ``Global Tire Standard 2000'' worked out under the aegis of the Transatlantic Business Dialogue to achieve global harmonization of passenger tire safety and trade standards.
The RMA also will continue working with European and Japanese tire associations to expand the harmonization effort to all tires, Mr. Shea said.
As part of the international standardization effort, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a final rule in May requiring metric measurements as well as English ones on the sidewalls of all tires sold in the U.S., beginning in 2003. Also, NHTSA proposed changing tire identification numbers on U.S. tires to bring them in line with new standards from the Economic Commission for Europe.
Although everyone was too cautious to state a ``wish list'' of legislation for 1999, Mr. Poisson said that if TANA has any priority in Washington, it's to gain more incentives in Congress for employee training by small businesses.
``More of our people would like to take a chance on new employees, but they need more help from a Congress that sees a benefit in doing that,'' he said. ``The most important thing Congress could take up is a stronger investment in the training of the work force.''
The lower end of the work force is where funds for training are most needed, Mr. Poisson said. as a country, ``We need to renew our commitment to the trades, to vocational training and to on-the-job training,'' he said.
Scrap tire recycling is approaching 80 percent of all scrap tires generated annually in the U.S., the highest recycling percentage of any recyclable material, Mr. Shea said.
There is no current danger of federal legislation on scrap tires, but scrap tire recycling doesn't get the respect it deserves, Mr. Shea said. ``We have to figure out a way to shine a stronger light on the industry's accomplishments in scrap tire recycling,'' he said. ``It's not something that's widely known, and people need to appreciate what's been done.''
At least one former government program was privatized in 1998. The Cooperative Tire Qualification Program was commissioned by the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Command and is administered by a private contractor, Associated Consultants of Technical Services Inc., whose president, Mark A. Swift Jr., is a former TACOM official.
The CTQP takes up where the discontinued Federal Tire Program at the General Services Administration left off, providing quality certification of new and retread tires for government procurement.