The inside story of how one agency became independent

The inside story of how one agency became independent

Transportation Department officials in recent weeks have again found themselves to be pawns in the ongoing, increasingly bitter feud between House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa., and House Transportation Appropriations Chairman Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., over who gets to set transportation policy.

And one of those pawns is now paying the price: Wolf has asked the department's inspector general to launch a criminal investigation of Julie Cirillo, the Office of Motor Carriers administrator, regarding a memo she wrote to her employees. Although Cirillo's memo appeared to be an innocent update about the effects of the then-pending Transportation appropriations bill, Wolf interpreted it as unfair lobbying by the Clinton Administration against his plan to reform the Office of Motor Carriers. Wolf also accused Cirillo's department of leaking the memo to CongressDaily, which published its contents during the height of his battle with Shuster over the appropriations bill.

Shuster and his committee members also drew Transportation Department officials into the legislative turf war with Wolf. But when those officials did not provide a doomsday scenario about the effect of Wolf's bill on truck safety, committee members relentlessly pounded them with questions until they did.

In interviews, several Transportation officials said that the flap is just the most recent example of Wolf and Shuster dragging innocent bystanders into their perpetual turf war. Officials play along because they are reluctant to offend either chairman. Shuster's committee authorizes all of the Transportation Department programs, but Wolf's pays for them through appropriations.

"It's a very unpleasant place to be. It's a no-win situation for us," said a Transportation official, echoing the comments of others.

Since assuming their respective chairmanships with the Republican takeover of the House in 1995, Shuster and Wolf have engaged in a nasty battle over the authority to set transportation policy.

In last year's highway and transit reauthorization bill, Shuster enacted "fire walls" around that bill's spending for the next six years. That means appropriators such as Wolf cannot change the level or direction of highway and transit spending in annual appropriations bills. Because those highway and transit programs make up the bulk of the yearly Transportation appropriations bill, Wolf now has influence over the Federal Aviation Administration, Amtrak, and the Coast Guard only-a situation Wolf complains about frequently.

But Wolf cares deeply about transportation safety issues. So every year in his appropriations bills, Wolf makes some of the Transportation Department's funding, or state program funding, contingent on the enactment of policy changes by the Administration or states. Shuster criticizes such provisions as legislating on appropriations bills, a maneuver that violates House and Senate rules.

When Wolf brought his fiscal 2000 Transportation appropriations bill to the House floor this year, Shuster used a procedural move to strike out those policy riders. But Wolf resurrected many of them during conference committee negotiations. When Shuster found out, he and the top Democrat on his committee, Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., plotted to defeat the conference report on the House floor.

Shuster is a master at vote counting, and has handed his own Republican leadership a series of embarrassing defeats on the floor during the past couple of years. He might have won again this time, but the leadership, tiring of Shuster's intransigence, stuck it to him. First, Wolf refused to give Shuster a copy of the conferenced bill until the last minute it had to be made public-at 10 o'clock the night before the bill came to the House floor. Republican leaders then told Shuster that it would not come up for debate until the next afternoon. But they instead brought it up at 9 a.m. and called for a vote 10 minutes later, when Shuster was nowhere near the floor to object. The GOP leadership passed the bill without Shuster's even being present to speak. Appropriators and the leadership beamed with the satisfaction of revenge.

Shuster was furious. "Cute moves like that have a way of coming back to haunt people," he said.

That might have been the high-water mark of the Shuster-Wolf battle for this year. But there was a problem with the Transportation appropriations bill.

The Office of Motor Carriers is responsible for regulating and policing the safety of large trucks and other commercial vehicles, including passenger buses. But for the past two years, Wolf has accused the office of being lax about enforcing those laws. Wolf believes that the OMC has become too cozy with the trucking industry and that it is less than vigilant about pursuing and punishing safety violators. Therefore, in his appropriations bill, Wolf wrote a provision denying the OMC funding until it was moved out from under the bureaucracy of the Federal Highway Administration.

With the bill heading to President Clinton's desk, Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater took administrative action during the first week of October to make the OMC a separate agency reporting directly to him. Wolf had won a legislative victory through his appropriations bill.

But the bill's language did not move the OMC's authority to enforce civil penalties for safety violators from the Federal Highway Administration to wherever Slater moved the OMC. And Slater did not have the power to move that legal authority on his own. During the week between passage of the bill and President Clinton's signing it, Transportation Department aides scrambled to figure out the ramifications.

That's when Cirillo, on Oct. 4, wrote an internal e-mail to her employees. Her first point was to emphasize-in all capital letters-that all OMC employees would retain their jobs and would be paid, even though the office would be moved on the bureaucratic chart. But with questions still surrounding the effect of the enforcement provision, Cirillo wrote her interpretation: that employees were to temporarily stop enforcement of some safety laws. "The members of the enforcement team will be reassigned to perform other duties in the resource centers or in division offices. . . . No work will be done on any enforcement action," she wrote. Cirillo added later that employees "who are working on enforcement actions with the IG, FBI, or U.S. Attorney will have to cease these operations until further notice."

When the memo was leaked to CongressDaily on Oct. 6, Transportation officials went into a frenzy. They feared the effect of news reports that truck safety laws were about to lapse, but they could not officially refute Cirillo's memo.

Meanwhile, Shuster heard about the memo and called for a hearing the next day at which the Administration would testify on the situation. The President had not signed the bill yet. If Shuster could rally enough news coverage that truck safety laws were about to lapse, there was a chance the bad publicity might force Clinton to veto the bill. Shuster's aides maintain that the chairman's intent was not to have Clinton veto the bill. But if there was a veto, Shuster would have gained another shot at knocking out all the legislative provisions he opposed in Wolf's bill, most of which did not relate to the OMC.

At the hearing, General Counsel Nancy McFadden of the Transportation Department and Jack Basso, the assistant secretary for budget and programs, testified that truck safety enforcement activities limited by the bill would affect only the pursuing of civil penalties in court-and that federal officers, including border inspectors, would still have the power to immediately take unsafe trucks off the road and conduct immediate inspections of truck company logs and operations. During the reading of her prepared remarks, McFadden downplayed any safety problems that might arise. Without saying so directly, McFadden and Basso indicated that Cirillo's memo exaggerated the situation, and that public safety was not at immediate risk.

But Shuster and his committee members did not want to hear that. They argued that public safety was, indeed, in jeopardy. After persistent questioning from Republican and Democratic members, McFadden moved toward their position, saying: "Our enforcement efforts will be severely hampered."

Within the space of 20 minutes, the Administration swung from supporting Wolf's view that the provision would not dramatically affect truck safety, to supporting Shuster's view that it would. These officials were caught between Wolf and Shuster, who is still considered one of the "Old Bulls" of committee chairmen.

The following day, Shuster sought to move a bill on the House floor that would have repealed Wolf's OMC provision until Shuster could move his own office reform bill. But in a deal with the leadership, which did not want another fight, Shuster agreed to draft a noncontroversial bill that simply moved the civil enforcement authority for the OMC from the Federal Highway Administration to the Transportation Secretary, who now directly oversees the OMC. The Senate passed it by unanimous consent, and Clinton signed it without fanfare.

All is now well with truck safety enforcement. The OMC is its own agency focusing on safety. Wolf won his battle-but he is still mad. Back when Wolf wrote his bill, he asked Transportation Department officials to draft the legislative language to move the OMC. Wolf and his staff members now blame those officials for failing to include the language needed to move the civil enforcement authority-the cause of the uproar.

Both chairmen have smart, savvy staff members-but they are also strong-willed and aggressive. Department officials said one of the problems they have with both Shuster and Wolf is that those staff members often pressure them to provide testimony, papers, position letters, or legislation to support each chairman's agenda. If they are perceived by Shuster or Wolf of taking the other chairman's side, department officials catch the blame.

And Wolf is still angry enough to request a criminal investigation of Cirillo by the inspector general. Cirillo declined a request for an interview, but an aide maintained that the OMC chief's only motive was to keep her employees informed of a situation that could potentially affect their jobs and paychecks.

A department official outside the OMC who regularly navigates the moat of alligators between Shuster and Wolf said: "You've got to be very careful around these folks."