Q. What do representatives of U.S. rubber manufacturers, tire dealers and retreaders feel about the results of the election?
A. A Republican administration, they feel, will be more responsive to their interests. But the presidential race was so hotly contested, and the Republican margin in both houses of Congress so narrowed, that this isn't the time for an aggressive political agenda, they agree.
WASHINGTON—Interviewed before Vice President Al Gore's Dec. 13 concession speech—when George W. Bush's election as president seemed likely but by no means assured—Washington representatives of the rubber industry were guarded in their comments about the election.
They agreed, however, that new legislation would move at a stately pace, no matter who became president.
"Irrespective of whether Bush or Gore is elected, given the fact that the Senate is tied and even considering that the vice president will cast any tie-breaking vote, whoever is president will have to craft a centrist agenda," said Donald B. Shea, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association. "No measure beyond a centrist position is going to be passed."
Becky MacDicken, government affairs director for the Tire Association of North America, concurred.
"A Bush administration will be a little more pro-business than a Gore administration, and more pro-small business," she said. "Bush has already indicated that the repeal of the estate tax is on his agenda." But for the most part, "there will be a lot of minor incremental actions that everyone can agree on, rather than major overhauls."
Some commentators have noted that this is the first time the GOP has held the White House and a majority in the House and Senate since the Eisenhower administration. But this distinction may well end up meaning little, said Roy E. Littlefield III, government relations director for the International Tire & Rubber Association.
"If the Democrats hold together on any issue, you won't have to have a lot of Republicans jump ship," Mr. Littlefield said. "What already seems to be happening is that the Democrats are getting energized by all this.... I think you'll see the Democrats begin to show a little more party unity in this Congress than in a long time."
A Bush administration, at least, gives the industry—particularly those whose members have smaller businesses—some hope that the White House will listen to its concerns.
Mr. Littlefield noted that Andrew Card, former Secretary of Transportation under Mr. Bush's father, will be White House Chief of Staff in the new administration. "Andy Card is a very good friend, someone I've worked with over the years," he said.
Ms. MacDicken noted that in the early 1990s "the Bush administration was much more open to meeting with small business, and really listening," she said. "With the exception of the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, the Clinton administration has not been willing to do that."
Q. What is the most important governmental issue the rubber industry faces in 2001?
A. The Transportation Recall Enforcement Accountability and Documentation Act—passed in direct reaction to the recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires—is something the tire industry will be living with for a long time, both as a general directive and in successive rulemakings arising from it.
"As last year taught us, laws are reactive," said Ross Kogel, executive vice president of TANA. "The TREAD Act is one of those; it showed us we just need to be as prepared as possible."
Both TANA and the RMA took great pride in their efforts to make sure the law was as livable as possible for tire makers and dealers.
"I never saw an industry that acted as cohesively as this one did," Mr. Shea said of the RMA members who, he noted, worked day and night to ensure passage of a bill that was workable for the industry.
But passage of the bill was "not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning," said Mr. Shea, paraphrasing Winston Churchill. Eight of the 12 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rulemakings required by the TREAD Act involve tires or rubber in some way, and those rulemakings will shape RMA activities for some time to come.
Developing the game plan for working on the TREAD Act rulemakings is "a mammoth undertaking," according to Ann Wilson, RMA vice president of government affairs. The RMA's board, she explained, has set up working groups to handle the association's response to each of the rulemakings.
"We are very concerned about crafting regulations that make sense for consumers and the industry," she said. "We want to take the opportunity to educate NHTSA and consumers about the tire industry."
The first NHTSA action under the TREAD Act—an advance notice to gather information for a rule to strengthen tire labeling requirements—is somewhat less of a potential minefield than other pending rulemakings. But it's important to make NHTSA and the public understand "that a sidewall is not sufficient space to print `War and Peace,'|" Mr. Shea said.
Meanwhile, there are discussions in California about a bill for state pre-emption of the TREAD Act in favor of a more stringent law—an idea the RMA opposes very strongly.
"The industry has worked very hard with NHTSA," Ms. Wilson said. "We've got to let NHTSA do its job."
Q. What other major issues does the industry face in 2001?
A. Ergonomics, worker training, recordkeeping, environmental issues, the estate tax and the weight-distance tax.
The final ergonomics rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—part of the pro-labor legacy the Clinton administration wanted to leave—comes a close second to the TREAD Act in the rubber industry's agenda, and far exceeds it on the industry's "worry list."
TANA and the RMA both belong to an industry coalition which has sued OSHA, claiming the ergonomics standard is ruinous to all industry and must be blocked.
At least a half-dozen lawsuits filed against OSHA have been consolidated in the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, according to Kim Weber, director of government affairs for the RMA.
Besides aiding in the court fight, TANA is considering the creation of a CD-ROM ergonomics compliance guide to give its members all the information they'll need to comply with the final rule, according to Mr. Kogel and Ms. MacDicken. The plan would be to place the CD-ROM on the TANA Web site for downloading.
"The regulation itself is so large that a download of that is questionable," Ms. MacDicken said.
TANA also will work toward passage in 2001 of the Skilled Workforce Empowerment Act, which would give employers a tax credit for setting up worker training programs. The measure had 89 bipartisan co-sponsors before time in the 2000 session ran out, Mr. Kogel and Ms. MacDicken said, and they have every reason to hope for success this time.
The RMA, meanwhile, is proud of the worker training initiatives it has developed in collaboration with Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. These include the Residential Training Program on the Ferris State campus and the CD-ROM training series developed under the aegis of the RMA General Products Group.
Also on the workplace front, the RMA is watching closely for OSHA's final rule on recordkeeping for workplace illnesses and injuries, which is due out in mid-January. "What we're looking for is the definition of `work-relatedness,'|" Ms. Wilson said.
Among regulatory issues, ITRA plans to fight the Environmental Protection Agency's National Air Ambient Quality Standard, which proposes stringent new regulations for ozone and particulate content in air, as well as its proposal limiting diesel fuel emissions, Mr. Littlefield said. He also expects action toward reauthorization of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, "looking at tires, batteries and underground oil."
The RMA is particularly concerned about the EPA's proposed Maximum Achievable Control Technology standard for the tire industry, which was published last October.
Deadline for comments on the MACT was Dec. 18, but the RMA received an extension for its comments until Jan. 25, according to Tracey L. Norberg, RMA director of environmental affairs.
"We are content with the framework the EPA has set up, but we have problems with various details," Ms. Norberg said. "The monitoring and recordkeeping requirements we feel just aren't workable for the industry."
TANA and ITRA have long wanted repeal of the estate tax, which places a huge tax burden on tire dealers and others who inherit a small family business. The groups feel they can achieve that during the Bush administration.
ITRA is also concerned about a possible revival of the weight-distance tax, which threatens to end the federal excise tax on new truck tires and thus curtail the price differential truck tire retreaders count on to stay competitive.
The RMA may put forward a proposal to base the truck tire tax on load capacity rather than weight, which is more equitable from retreaders' standpoint, Mr. Littlefield said. "There seems to be a lot of support for it, but there's a worry that the numbers may not crunch, so we hope to sit down and work on this."
Q. What lessons has the industry drawn from its experience in 2000 that it will apply in 2001?
A. That a strong lobbying effort is more important than ever.
TANA has made a strong commitment to renewing its government affairs efforts since a member survey showed most members regard a strong Washington presence as very important, Mr. Kogel said.
"Our strategy is to identify a problem and work toward solving it," either on its own or through an alliance with a coalition, TANA's Mr. Kogel said. "As opposed to a reactive government affairs program, we are trying to be more proactive."
For RMA's Mr. Shea, an effective lobbying effort means making your face and your issues known to as many legislators as possible. "Lobbying is hard work," he said. "You wear out a lot of shoes, you make your points, and if they're good ones, you have a chance to prevail."