Highway Bill amendments benefit ag

Mar 16, 2012

Many amendments were suggested and shot down for Highway Bill S.1813. Two of the small handful that got through should make farmers and ranchers breathe a sigh of relief. The bill will no longer require commercial licenses for drivers of farm vehicles and will lift restrictions that might have interfered with key seasonal activities.

According to National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) Associate Director of Legislative Affairs Kent Bacus, bipartisan agreements have been reached on the Highway Bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, agreed to consider a series of amendments to the bill for the benefit of farmers and ranchers.

Two of those amendments, which passed last Tuesday, are of particular importance for farm and ranch families. One of the amendments, brought forth by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-OR, will exempt drivers of farm vehicles from having to acquire a commercial driver’s license. Another amendment, introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, will waive hours of service restrictions during planting and harvest seasons.

“Farmers and ranchers are not professional truck drivers and shouldn’t be treated as such. Hauling livestock to market two times a year is hardly the same as hauling goods across the country on a daily basis. Subjecting family farmers and ranchers to costly requirements is an unnecessary burden we cannot afford,” said Bacus.

“NCBA and its members were pleased to see the U.S. Senate approve two commonsense amendments that differentiate agriculture from commercial transportation.”

The amendment brought up by Klobuchar is similar to H.R. 3265, sponsored by Congressman Sam Graves, R-MO, which waives certain driving restrictions during planting and harvest seasons for producers who are transporting agricultural goods. Bacus said the amendment would allow farmers and ranchers to transport goods during harvest seasons when necessary instead of being subject to certain time requirements.

The Farmers’ Freedom Act of 2011, H.R. 2414, sponsored by Congressman James Lankford, R-OK, is similar to the amendment sponsored by Merkley. This legislation exempts certain farm vehicles, including the individual operating the vehicle, from certain federal requirements such as commercial driver’s licenses.

The Senate passed the $109 billion bill on a bipartisan 74 to 22 vote last Wednesday with most division in the Republican ranks. The bill will now pass on to the House where it is expected to face tough challenges winning over House Republicans.

According to the U.S. House of Representatives, it is not moving forward with its earlier, five-year, $260 billion version of the Highway Bill. Instead, the House will take up the twoyear Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, and James Inhofe, R-OK.

If passed, the bill would provide funding for transportation projects and related needs. Janet Kavinoky, executive director for transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, commented on the current Highway Bill and how it has changed from past versions.

“You don’t have to worry about the ‘bridge to nowhere’ problem. [This bill] will stretch every dollar farther.”

In the past, the Highway Bill was a cornerstone of political pork, well-known for being rife with allocations for pet projects. But this bill is relatively trim without overwhelming earmarks.

The House is expected to decide on the bill in the next few months. Conflict in the House could stall it beyond that projection however. The current stop-gap spending measure to cover transport needs will expire March 31. It appears likely that another temporary spending measure will need to be passed before the current Highway Bill even hopes to pass Congress. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor