Even with the election year of 2004 looming ahead, the tire, rubber and independent auto repair industries won't see their government relations priorities change much from 2003.
``I don't think anybody could predict the outcome right now,'' said Roy E. Littlefield III, executive vice president of the Tire Industry Association (TIA), in December 2003-just before the capture of Saddam Hussein. Even with the former Iraq president accounted for, there are still many unanswerable questions:
* What will happen in Iraq be-tween now and November?
* Will Osama bin Laden also be apprehended?
* Who will win the Democratic presidential nomination-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean or another challenger?
* What will happen to the economy in the next 10 months and how drastically?
``We know one thing for sure: who the Republican presidential nominee is going to be,'' said Donald B. Shea, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA). ``You have the Democratic convention in July, the August recess and the Republican convention in September. Put that all together and you get a very abbreviated legislative calendar.''
With the congressional wrangling over the war in Iraq, Medicare funding, an energy policy bill and other big-ticket issues, little progress was made in 2003 in legislation that was industry-specific or of overriding interest to tire dealers and manufacturers. What dominates the concerns of their industry organizations should come as no surprise.
Both the RMA and TIA played the waiting game in 2003 over the ongoing saga of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. In 2004, they hope they will get answers to their lingering questions.
For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) must issue a new standard on tire pressure monitoring systems, after a New York federal appeals court declared the old one inadequate.
``We don't know yet whether this will be a notice of proposed rulemaking or a final rule,'' said Becky MacDicken, TIA government affairs director.
While the final rule must favor the use of direct tire pressure monitoring devices-a technology tire makers prefer over the indirect devices used in tandem with antilock brake systems-the RMA cares far more about the petition it filed with NHTSA for a minimum reserve load requirement for tires. If monitoring systems won't warn motorists about underinflated tires until the underinflation reaches 25 percent, the RMA insists that a minimum reserve load is vital to preserve highway safety. TIA and other associations concur with the RMA's position.
``Considering it's been a year and a half since we filed the petition, I think it's reasonable to expect an answer soon,'' Mr. Shea said.
The RMA and TIA also have petitioned NHTSA about final rules that remain on the books. For example, while the agency this year granted assurances that certain data submitted under the new ``early warning'' standard will remain confidential, it didn't grant all the confidentiality requests the industry made.
As written, the early warning rule could still leave open for scrutiny a tire maker's design for its ``common green tire,'' the platform from which a series of tires can be made and for other trade secret information, the RMA said. The holes in the confidentiality rule ``could be a backdoor way of getting production figures,'' said Ann Wilson, RMA vice president of government affairs.
The RMA also insists that compliance with the TREAD Act should be enforced. ``We sought some language in the rule directing tire exporters to provide reports on how they would ensure compliance with the TREAD Act,'' Mr. Shea said. ``We want to make sure there are no free riders. Our members will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with the rule, and we will go hell bent for leather to ensure there's a level playing field.''
Among other TREAD Act issues, both the RMA and TIA are waiting to hear back on their petitions to change the tire labeling rule, and the RMA has petitioned the agency to change the laboratory testing procedure for snow and light truck tires. The associations also anticipate that the agency will start testing commercial truck tires in the next few months.
TIA and the RMA are still in discussions regarding the possibility of a ``checkoff'' program for the tire industry. Under the federal checkoff law, industries may gain congressional blessing to assess a small percentage of the sales from all industry participants to fund a consumer information and education program. There are more than 60 such programs currently in the U.S., according to TIA, the big booster of the checkoff plan.
Unfortunately, what seemed to TIA to be a cakewalk earlier in 2003 met serious opposition in the fall.
First, two successive federal appeals courts declared the beef and pork producers' checkoff programs to be unconstitutional constraints on the free speech of industry members. Then, the board of directors of the Texas Tire Dealers Association voted to oppose the checkoff plan, fearing it would be ineffective and turn into a backdoor tax on the industry.
All of this has made the RMA's reservations about a checkoff program all the more apparent. ``Agreeing to discuss an idea is not the same as agreeing to the idea itself,'' Mr. Shea said. ``There are legal concerns that must be addressed, and practical issues such as how much money do you collect, who collects it and what is the breadth of support in the industry for the concept? These are not minor considerations.''
Even if these problems can be surmounted, Mr. Shea said, it won't be a quick or easy process. ``When you talk to other industries about their checkoff programs, their efforts took years, not months,'' he said.
TIA representatives, who released preliminary details of the checkoff plan in December, insist the various hurdles have been good for the process. ``They show us where the pitfalls are,'' Mr. Littlefield said. ``We want something successful long-term that won't be challenged by industry members or the courts.''
Understanding the need for grassroots support for the checkoff program, TIA has been talking to large, ``non-traditional'' retailers such as Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.-for which tires are only part of their business-to garner their support. ``If there's a legal challenge, it could well be from someone like this,'' Mr. Littlefield said.
A class-action reform bill much favored by the tire and other industries passed the House in 2003, but failed by one vote in the Senate in a motion to close off debate.
The bill would have made it much harder for plaintiffs' attorneys to go ``shopping'' for judicial venues that give big settlements to class action plaintiffs or to claim the lion's share of judgments for themselves.
However, some Senate Democratic leaders have indicated they're willing to compromise on the issue, ``and we hope that will give the legislation some legs in the second session,'' Mr. Shea said.