The United States faces a host of economic challenges, from strained global supply chains and rising consumer prices on household goods to hiring challenges and volatile energy prices.
A recent position taken by the Biden administration in a submission to the U.S. Supreme Court in C.H. Robinson v. Allen Miller threatens to throw supply chains into chaos and penalize hundreds of thousands of businesses, while driving prices higher and risking the safety of our roads.
While this consequential issue continues to be litigated, what is most troubling is that the solicitor general expressed a view that the U.S. government, through the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), only provides a bare "minimum" level of review before deeming a trucking firm safe to operate — one that shippers and brokers of freight can no longer rely on.
This should be deeply concerning to everyone who shares public roadways with carriers FMCSA is charged with regulating. It is extremely alarming to manufacturers, suppliers, shippers, brokers, freight forwarders and anyone who helps the supply chain by selecting or arranging a carrier to transport goods.
Congress gave power to the Department of Transportation and FMCSA to oversee transportation's contributions to our economy, interstate travel and, importantly, the safety of highways and the efficient economic movement of goods. The Solicitor General's assertion contradicts multiple commitments FMCSA made to the public and Congress citing safety as their highest priority.
FMCSA sets national standards for licensing motor carriers, freight brokers, freight forwarders and others in the industry. The agency mandates extensive safety regulations for how motor carriers, buses and transportation companies operate, including criteria required for certification and operating authority. If FMCSA's licensing of a motor carrier is not deemed a reasonable safety standard, then the standards set by FMCSA are rendered meaningless.
The solicitor general's new position proposes that brokers and shippers may be liable for using motor carriers who were vetted, licensed and authorized by FMCSA to operate and transport freight on our highways. If this position stands, brokers and shippers, not the government, will be tasked with independently determining safety criteria for hundreds of thousands of companies and more than a million trucks. We will soon see a confusing, inconsistent patchwork of standards, along with lawsuits, threatening our economy as well as public safety.
Without a clear federal standard for what constitutes safe selection, some shippers and brokers have already begun excluding motor carriers from their networks based on their own assessment of who is "safe" and who is not. This harms small carriers with five trucks or fewer who make up 90% of the market — a large percentage of which are minority owned — and is discouraging new entrants to the market.
With an already strained global supply chain, if FMCSA continues to abdicate the responsibility it previously assumed and for which it secured appropriations to fund its work, the inevitable result will be further disruptions in the transportation of goods that will push prices even higher — harming manufacturers, retailers and consumers.
Federal agencies like FMCSA are far better suited than individual shippers and brokers to regulate national motor carrier operations safely and set a reasonable standard. Licensing should be that standard and not a meaningless "minimum standard" as the solicitor general describes. FMCSA even acknowledged this, saying in a 2016 Federal Register notice that "As the Federal government agency responsible for commercial motor vehicle (CMV) safety, FMCSA must identify unfit motor carriers."
If FMCSA has not identified a motor carrier as "unfit" or unsafe, others should be able to rely on that assessment when tendering freight to licensed motor carriers to be transported on the nation's highways.
Common sense must prevail. We urge the administration and FMCSA to publicly acknowledge and clarify their primary role for providing a uniform system of motor carrier safety regulation so we can all travel on safe roads while allowing the economy and supply chains to operate smoothly. We look forward to supporting legislative remedies, such as HR 3042, the Motor Carrier Safety Selection Standard Act, as it is clearer than ever that a national selection standard is immediately needed.
Bob Biesterfeld is president and CEO, C.H. Robinson. This article is also submitted on behalf of Doug Waggoner, CEO, Echo Global Logistics; Jason Beardall, CEO, England Logistics; Mark Yeager, CEO, Redwood Logistics; Anne Reinke, president and CEO, Transportation Intermediaries Association; Jeff Simmons, chief legal officer, GlobalTranz Enterprises; Edgar R. Ocampo, general counsel, Koch Companies; Sharon Johnson, chief legal officer, Mode Global; Linda Kelly, chief legal officer and corporate secretary, National Association of Manufacturers; Stephanie Martz, chief administrative officer and general counsel, National Retail Federation, and Leah Dawson, executive vice president, general counsel and secretary, Yellow Corporation.