The 2004 election gave President George W. Bush his second term in office and the Republicans a stronger majority in both the House and Senate.
To representatives of business and industry in Washington-including spokespersons for the tire and independent auto repair industries-the strengthened GOP balance of power signifies opportunity for passage of long-sought legislation.
Even so, they don't see any item on their agendas as a slam-dunk.
``We have to remember that we're not at 60 Republicans in the (Senate), meaning that no item is filibuster-proof,'' noted Becky MacDicken, director of government affairs for the Tire Industry Association (TIA). Still, the Republican majority in Congress coupled with a business-friendly White House means issues such as tort reform and Association Health Plans (AHPs) have a better chance at passage in the 109th Congress than in previous times.
Regulatory issues, which existed before the election and weren't much affected by it, are another matter, noted Donald B. Shea, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA).
``In the regulatory agencies, with one minor change, it will be business as usual,'' Mr. Shea predicted. ``We think that Runge (Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA]) will be there for the foreseeable future, as well as a majority of his staff.''
The minor change to which Mr. Shea referred is that Scott Brenner, formerly a member of Mr. Runge's staff, joined the RMA a few months ago as its vice president of government affairs. (Laurie Baulig also joined the association in the past year; formerly its outside counsel, she now is its general counsel and senior vice president-regulatory affairs.)
The following are issues, in no particular order, on which the industry will focus in 2005:
Of all the pending issues under the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) is the one that gives the tire industry the most pause.
NHTSA issued a new final rule on the subject in September-after a federal appeals court overturned the first one-but the RMA and TIA want the new regulation revisited and, if possible, rewritten from top to bottom.
``We oppose this rule,'' Mr. Shea said flatly. Allowing tire pressures to fall 25 percent below the vehicle manufacturer's recommended levels before motorists ever see a warning light, he said, is patently unacceptable from either a safety or a consumer satisfaction angle.
``Not only do our studies show, but reason tells us, that people pay less attention to their tires if they believe they'll be warned about problems in a timely fashion,'' he said. ``That is precisely our point: They will not be warned in a timely fashion under this rule.''
Early warning data
The RMA is of the firm opinion that all information submitted to NHTSA under the ``early warning'' rule should remain confidential except in specific cases when a safety investigation has been opened.
This, in fact, was the express intention of Congress as stated in the language of the TREAD Act, the association insists. Public Citizen, the safety watchdog organization headed by former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook, is equally adamant that all early warning data should be released freely to the public.
The halfway measures taken by the agency-ruling that some data, but not all, should be confidential-pleased neither side. Therefore, both are suing NHTSA in federal court.
Public Citizen should submit its opening brief in January, Ms. Baulig said, followed by the RMA's 30 days later.
The RMA and TIA also will work in 2005 to head off the NHTSA petition from Safety Research & Strategies Inc. to place the date of manufacture on every tire-an unnecessary move in any case, they said, since there already is a four-digit manufacturing date code on every tire.
``We're having a tough enough time convincing people to pay attention to their tires,'' Mr. Shea said. ``Do we really want to add another piece of information?''
Being forced to deal with a tire-aging standard-especially placing a priority on keeping track of tires' dates of manufacture-would create huge inventory problems for tire dealers, according to Roy Littlefield, TIA executive vice president. ``There's also a problem of definition,'' he said. ``If you take your winter tires off in the spring, does that mean they're used tires and you have to get rid of them?''
There are environmental concerns regarding stringent tire-aging regulations, Ms. MacDicken noted, because it could force tires that are still perfectly good into the waste stream prematurely. Furthermore, if there were annual auto safety inspections mandated throughout all 50 states-an idea TIA champions, along with other auto repair associations-dangerously aged tires would be pulled from service as a matter of course, she added.
``If a tire is 10 years old, you might want to think about replacing it,'' she said. ``Otherwise, the variables are too great.''
Mr. Shea said the RMA is working with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the American Society for Testing and Materials on the creation of a viable tire-aging test. Phase I of the project should be completed by February, with Phase II beginning immediately after that, he said. The final test procedure should be available sometime during 2005, he added.
The RMA will align itself with coalitions-led probably by the National Association of Manufacturers or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce-that focus on legislative solutions to the crisis of spiraling health care costs, Mr. Shea said, noting, ``clearly the costs are getting out of control.''
TIA and the Automotive Service Association (ASA) are supporting very specific legislation to create AHPs, which will let association members pool their resources across state lines to bargain for health insurance. Though AHPs face widespread opposition because they go against state insurance regulations, small business organizations are convinced such plans are the only way to make health insurance affordable.
``Insurance is probably the biggest issue we face,'' Mr. Littlefield said. ``The expenses are tremendous and going up.''
``We've supported AHP legislation along with other groups,'' said Robert L. Redding, ASA Washington representative. ``This Congress will be a friendlier environment for proposing this bill.'' But it won't necessarily be easy, Mr. Redding added, noting that the Senate has yet to vote on AHP legislation, even as the House has approved it twice.