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It Is Congress That Needs to Be Limited


Standing near the Long Island Expressway (LIE) — with tractor-trailers zooming by — U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to swiftly finalize a proposed rule that would require electronic speed-limiting devices in large trucks, buses, and school buses that weigh more than 26,000 pounds. Said the senator in a press release,

For every Long Island driver who has been next to or in the crosshairs of a speeding big rig, a technology like this can’t come fast enough. Trucks and large buses that barrel down our roads unsafely put everyone in danger, but now that we have a sensible technology that can make extreme truck and bus speeds a thing of the past, we must push the feds to accelerate its swift adoption. The LIE is just one of New York’s big-rig attractions, and so, capping speed in a safe and reasonable way will make this expressway and everyday drivers safer.

Although acknowledging that “the federal rule-making process can sometimes take years,” Schumer wants this proposed rule “finalized as quickly as possible so that installation of the systems can begin quickly and drivers can be properly trained.”

Schumer maintains that adopting the proposed rule “could help reduce the more than 1,000 fatalities involving heavy vehicles and speed every year.” Although “many trucks and large vehicles are operated safely, technology like speed-limiters, when used correctly, can help crack down on the few bad actors who are putting lives in danger.” But it is not just safety that Schumer is concerned about. Requiring speed-limiting devices in heavy trucks would not only “help save lives and prevent injuries,” it would “also positively impact the environment” by saving fuel and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

The speed-limiting rule

The rule Schumer was referring to was proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). It would

require vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 11,793.4 kilograms (26,000 pounds) to be equipped with a speed limiting device initially set to a speed no greater than a speed to be specified in a final rule and would require motor carriers operating such vehicles in interstate commerce to maintain functional speed limiting devices set to a speed no greater than a speed to be specified in the final rule for the service life of the vehicle.

Specifically, the NHTSA is proposing to establish a new federal motor-vehicle safety standard (FMVSS) requiring that each new vehicle weighing more than 26,000 pounds be equipped with a speed- limiting device. The FMCSA is proposing a complementary federal motor-carrier safety regulation (FMCSR) requiring that each commercial motor vehicle (CMV) weighing more than 26,000 pounds be equipped with a speed-limiting device meeting the requirements of the proposed FMVSS applicable to the vehicle at the time of manufacture. Such vehicles used in interstate commerce would be required to maintain the speed-limiting devices for the service-life of the vehicle. The idea behind the new standard is that “limiting the speed of these heavy vehicles would reduce the severity of crashes involving these vehicles and reduce the resulting fatalities and injuries.”

NHTSA’s authority for this latest notice of proposed rule-making (NPRM) is said to be the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. The FMCSA’s portion of the NPRM is said to be based on the authority of the Motor Carrier Act of 1935 and the Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1984, both as amended.

Schumer wrote a letter to the NHTSA and FMCSA applauding their “efforts to commence a rulemaking on truck speed limiters” and urging them “to finalize this rule as quickly as possible.” He concluded by bringing up New York State’s “long history with high-speed truck related crashes” and citing some statistics: “In 2014 alone, there were 10,742 police-reported large truck crashes, 74 of which were fatal and 990 of which were related to unsafe speed.” And while the senator acknowledged that “truck speed limiters will not prevent all crashes,” he believed that “they will certainly significantly reduce both the number and severity of these accidents.”

Another senator has taken up this cause as well. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) has issued his own press release about the matter. He states that “for the last several years” he has “urged the Department of Transportation to improve road safety by requiring heavy trucks to use speed-limiting technology to reduce the violence of crashes and save lives.” Like Schumer, Isakson has “called on the administration to act expeditiously” to adopt the speed-limiting device rule. The senator also offered an amendment (SA 4024) to the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017 (S.2577) “to direct the Secretary of Transportation to issue a final rule requiring the use of speed limiting devices on heavy trucks not later than 6 months after the date of the enactment of this Act.” The Senate agreed to Isakson’s amendment by voice vote.

Some trucking organizations are opposed to the federal speed- limiter requirements.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) issued a press release critical of the proposal: “Such a mandate would have serious consequences, such as promoting road rage among other motorists and creating ‘rolling roadblocks’ of trucks on highways.” As explained by Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the OOIDA, “Many states that used to have lower, separate speed limits for trucks have realized this was not the best idea and changed their policies to the same speed limit for all vehicles. Highways are safest when all vehicles travel at the same relative speed. This wisdom is backed by science.” The OOIDA also criticized the actions of Congress related to the proposed rule: “The Association says that Congress should take time to understand the true impact this policy would have on highway safety and allow the rule-making process to continue, rather than imposing a mandate through the appropriations process.” By amending the Senate bill, the Senate is ignoring the sacrosanct ability of industry stakeholders to help shape the regulations affecting them through the traditional federal rule-making process.” Remarked Spencer, “Congress has never analyzed the effect of mandating lower speeds for heavy vehicles through any public hearing or forum. We believe the Senate’s first significant action on the issue should not be in the form of mandating something that decades of research has proven increases the likelihood of crashes between trucks and other vehicles.”

Likewise, as reported by the trucking and freight transportation industry trade paper Transport Topics, American Trucking Associations (ATA) President Chris Spear criticized the proposal, calling it “flawed” because it would create differential speeds along highways. “Proposing a rule that does not take into account the various differentials in speed between what this rule proposes and what state speed limits are is dangerous,” said Spear at ATA’s Management Conference & Exhibition in Las Vegas.

The regulatory state

It is not just trucking organizations that should be opposed to NHTSA and FMCSA rules. Anyone who prefers the limited government of the Founders over a regulatory state should be opposed as well.

That, of course, does not mean that we should be indifferent to fatal crashes involving tractor-trailers or be in denial about excessive speed’s being a factor in many traffic accidents. According to the NHTSA, in 2014 there were, nationwide, 3,903 people killed and 111,000 people injured in crashes involving large trucks. Of those killed in those crashes, 83 percent were occupants of other vehicles or pedestrians. And according to the ATA, “Speed is a contributor to roughly 29 percent of all fatal crashes” and “driving too fast for conditions or over the posted speed limit was the primary reason for 18 percent of all fatal crashes where a large truck was deemed at fault.”

In arguing for their proposed rule, the NHTSA and FMCSA maintain that “even a small increase in speed among large trucks will have large effects on the force impact in a crash.” The administrations estimate that “limiting the speed of heavy vehicles to 60 miles per hour would save an estimated 162 to 498 lives annually; limiting the speed of heavy vehicles to 65 miles per hour would save 63 to 214 lives annually; and limiting the speed of heavy vehicles to 68 miles per hour would save 27 to 96 lives annually.”

But why stop there? Just imagine how many lives could be saved annually if the speed of heavy vehicles were limited to just 50, or 40, or 30 miles per hour? And why limit the installation of speed-limiting devices to just heavy trucks and buses? Why not put the devices on cars as well? Nationwide, there are thousands more accidents involving only cars resulting in thousands more deaths. Since the posted speed limit on most major American highways does not exceed 70 miles per hour, why should car companies be allowed to manufacture cars that can achieve speeds of more than 100 miles per hour? And wouldn’t a return to a maximum national speed limit of 55 miles per hour — to promote safety this time instead of saving fuel — further cut the number of annual highway deaths in the United States? Indeed, if increased safety and fewer highway fatalities is the goal, then why not a combination of speed-limiters and lower speed limits?

Government regulation of truck and bus engines is just one small part of the regulatory state that repeatedly tramples property rights, stifles businesses, and needlessly interferes in the free market. The federal government currently regulates every facet of American life — from the amount of water toilets flush to the size of the holes in Swiss cheese. In a free society, the government would not regulate any of those things and the NHTSA and FMCSA would not exist. In the trucking industry, it is private organizations such as the OOIDA and ATA that should undertake studies and propose regulations. Every further attempt at government regulation — even in the name of safety — should be opposed root and branch. It is simply not the proper role of government to be a regulator. Once the government begins regulating, there is never an end to it. And once one regulation is justified in the name of safety, no logical argument can then be made against the government’s imposing countless others.

It is in the interest of trucking companies to minimize or prevent accidents involving their trucks. That is why, as acknowledged by Schumer in his press release, according to the ATA, “approximately 70 percent of trucking companies already use electronic limiters.”

Our spendthrift Congress

If the federal government really wants to limit something, it should start with the spendthrift Congress. At the end of fiscal year 2016, the U.S. national debt stood at $19,573,444,713,936.79. That is more than $19 trillion. Like his predecessor George W. Bush, Barack Obama presided over almost a doubling of the national debt. Because Congress spends more every year than it collects in revenue, the federal government runs a deficit. The sum total of all the federal deficits since the beginning of the United States is the national debt.

The federal budget is now about $4 trillion a year. The U.S. treasury divides all federal spending into three groups: mandatory, discretionary, and interest spending.

Mandatory spending, which makes up nearly two-thirds of the total federal budget, is spending that Congress legislates outside of the annual appropriations process. It is dominated by the big three: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Mandatory spending also includes spending on food stamps, transportation, veterans’ benefits, refundable tax credits, unemployment benefits, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), student loans, housing assistance, and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program.

Discretionary spending refers to the portion of the budget that is decided by Congress through the annual appropriations process each year. It accounts for about one-third of the federal budget. More than half of that is spending on the Pentagon and military operations. The rest includes spending for Head Start; education; Pell grants; NASA; veterans’ benefits; international affairs; transportation; job training; scientific research grants; the departments of Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, and State; and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program.

Interest spending is the interest the government pays on its accumulated debt, minus interest income received by the government for the assets it owns. The government’s interest expense for fiscal year 2016 was $432.6 billion.

Is all of that spending necessary? Of course not. Most of it is not spent on a legitimate purpose of government. Much of it is spent on boondoggles. Much of it is transferred from one American to another after being filtered through a bloated and expensive government bureaucracy. Much of it is wasted on military offense instead of defense. Is it possible to limit any of the spending? Of course it is. It is entirely possible to limit all of it. And we don’t need a balanced-budget amendment, policy recommendations from D.C. think tanks, congressional hearings, or a special commission on how to eliminate government waste and fraud to do it. And we certainly don’t need to elect more Republicans or fiscal conservatives to Congress, since they are just part of the problem.

The Constitution

It is possible to limit congressional spending by simply demanding that members of Congress follow the Constitution they have sworn to uphold. The Constitution (article VI, clause 3) requires that senators and representatives “be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution.” U.S. law requires that members of Congress be sworn in before they can take their seats. The language of the congressional oath has changed (it is set by statute) several times since it was first administered in 1789. It now reads,

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

Regardless of any flaws or problems that anyone thinks the Constitution has, it is the supreme law of the land. America could be “made great again” if the legislators Americans elected simply followed the Constitution when it came to spending the taxpayers’ money.

The United States was set up as a federal system of government where the states, through the Constitution, granted a limited number of powers to the national government. As future president James Madison explained in Federalist No. 45,

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects, which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people; and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

Congress has been granted the power to do about thirty things — not the hundreds of things it currently does.

A statement by our third president, Thomas Jefferson, is apropos here: “In questions of power then let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” It is the Constitution that can limit congressional spending. The chains of the Constitution can bind Congress. What Congress lacks is will power, not some plan or procedure. I will limit my list of items the Constitution can limit congressional spending on, to just ten major things. There are hundreds more minor things.

The Constitution can limit congressional spending on education. Although the federal government doesn’t operate any schools, it funds education through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Pell Grants, and student loans. It also funds a huge educational bureaucracy in the Department of Education. But since the Constitution doesn’t authorize the federal government to spend one penny on education, and doesn’t even mention education, all federal spending on education should be ended and the Department of Education should be shuttered.

The Constitution can limit congressional spending on the drug war. The federal government spends billions of dollars every year enforcing its drug laws, incarcerating Americans for drug possession or “trafficking,” seizing drug shipments, eradicating marijuana fields, and maintaining an army of armed bureaucrats in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). But since the Constitution doesn’t authorize the federal government to classify drugs on a schedule, wage war on drugs, or ban any substance, the war on drugs should be ended and the DEA should be abolished.

The Constitution can limit congressional spending on space exploration. Although space exploration was not envisioned at the time of the writing of the Constitution, the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to explore anything. All space exploration and travel to the International Space Station should be conducted and funded by private entities and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should be abolished.

The Constitution can limit congressional spending on Social Security. This is the greatest expense the federal government has. And although it is a popular program that enjoys wide bipartisan support, that doesn’t make it constitutional. So, since the Constitution doesn’t authorize the federal government to institute or operate a retirement program, a safety net, an investment account, or a disability plan, the Social Security Administration should be closed down, the program should be abolished, and the payroll taxes that partially fund it should be eliminated.

The Constitution can limit congressional spending on Medicare and Medicaid. After Social Security and defense, Medicare and Medicaid account for two of the largest expenditures of the federal government. But since the federal government is nowhere authorized by the Constitution to have health-care programs, subsidize health insurance or health care, pay for prescription drugs, or have anything to do with insurance or medicine, Medicare and Medicaid should be ended along with the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Constitution can limit congressional spending on agriculture. The federal government treats agriculture different from other sectors of the economy and subsidizes certain segments of it. But since the Constitution doesn’t authorize the federal government to subsidize agriculture or any other sector of the economy, farming should be treated just like any other business. The Department of Agriculture should be abolished, and all farm subsidies should be eliminated.

The Constitution can limit congressional spending on welfare. Every year, the federal government takes billions of dollars from those who work and transfers it to those who don’t. Its welfare system includes roughly 80 means-tested programs such as SNAP, NSLP, LIEAP, EITC, WIC, SSI, and TANF that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and lower-income Americans. But since the Constitution doesn’t authorize the federal government to operate or fund any welfare programs, provide charity, or fight poverty, they should all be abolished.

The Constitution can limit congressional spending on foreign aid. The federal government gives away to foreign governments and agencies billions of dollars in foreign aid it first takes out of the pockets of American taxpayers. But since the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to give aid even to Americans, all foreign aid supplied by the U.S. government should be ended.

The Constitution can limit congressional spending on scientific, medical, and cultural grants. Since the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to subsidize scientific or medical research or the cultural activities of individuals or organizations, all federal grants for those things should be canceled, all future grants ended, and all of the agencies responsible for making grants disbanded.

The Constitution can limit congressional spending on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Although air travel was not envisioned at the time of the writing of the Constitution, the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to provide security for private businesses. Airports and airlines should handle their own security just like any other business and the TSA should be abolished.

Whether or not the states can or should spend money on any of those things is something important that can and should be debated, but is irrelevant to the subject at hand. It is the federal government that needs to be limited. It is vastly more important that congressional spending be limited than the speed of large trucks.

This article was originally published in the January 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.

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