Interstate Bureaucrats Nearing the End of the Road

Article excerpt

Both parties agree that the Interstate Commerce Commission has outlived its usefulness. But despite assertions that its fate is sealed, the agency has yet to shut its doors.

Grover Cleveland was serving his first term in the White House and Thomas Edison was inventing the motion picture when Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission. Last year, Republicans tried to scrap the agency, calling it a dinosaur that lost its purpose more than a decade ago.

"The ICC is a relic of the horse-and-buggy days," Bruce Cuthbertson, a spokesman for Rep. John Kasich, an Ohio Republican and leader of the anti-ICC movement, told Insight. Last year's Republican proposal passed the House but died in the Senate. Still, Congress pushed through a 30 percent cut in the ICC's funding, reducing the agency's staff to 428, a fraction of its former size.

Created in 1887 to clamp down on railroad monopolies, the ICC grew and extended its authority as new forms of surface transportation such as trucking and bus operations evolved. Eventually, it became one of the most powerful federal agencies, with 2,500 employees in the early sixties. By the time Jimmy Carter became president, however, the ICC's star had plummeted. During the der-egulation movement of the late seventies and early eighties, Congress gutted the ICC's power over rates and market entry (mainly in the trucking and railroad industries) and cut its workforce to 622.

But Republicans in the 104th Congress have yet to introduce a bill to eliminate the agency Many details must be worked out, including which federal department would take over remaining ICC functions. Additionally, groups representing truckers, railroads and other industries regulated by the ICC could put up a fight if they believe their interests are being ignored. With Congress facing a heavy legislative agenda, some wonder if an ICC bill can get through both houses, especially the more deliberative Senate, befor-e presidential politics intrude. As Republicans contemplate eliminating other agencies during the coming months, they win have to wrestle with the same questions the ICC debate has raised; it remains unclear whether such uncertainties will hinder the Republican drive to shrink government.

One factor in the ICC's favor is history Federal agencies rarely close. President Reagan, riding a rising tide of conservatism, promised to scrap the departments of Education and Energy, but failed. Political scientists cite the "iron triangle" syndrome as the reason: Members of Congress like to oversee agencies; agency employees, determined to keep their jobs, apply pressure on Congress to support their work; and private industries, fearing retaliation or simply comfortable, defend the status quo.

One of the ICC's main functions is requiring 60,000 trucking companies to file rate changes. Critics say the practice is costly and time-consuming to trucking companies and of little use because rate changes seldom are challenged. They say the number of trucking companies, which has tripled since 1980, ensures adequate competition. The ICC itself agrees that economic regulation of the trucking industry should end, although it favors continued safety and insurance oversight. "The trucking industry is adequately disciplined by market forces," the ICC said in a recent report to Congress. Hoping to head off extinction, the ICC offered its own proposal to cut its budget and workforce about 40 percent.

The White House budget, however, proposes much deeper cuts, largely by scaling back railroad regulation. The Clinton administration would slash the ICC's $39 million budget and 428 workers by 70 percent and transfer most of the remaining staff to the departments of Justice and Tranportation. "While this regulation may have served the national interest well for a long time, much of it has now become an expensive paper chase with few if any offsetting benefits to shippers and consumers," Transportation Secretary Federico Pena wrote in a letter to Vice President Al Gore. …