[As posted by Kathryn Wolfe and Scott Wong in Politico]
New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s decision to retire at the end of his term hands transportation safety advocates their second piece of political bad news in recent months.
Lautenberg, who chairs the Senate Commerce panel in charge of highways, transit, rail and maritime issues, said Thursday that he won’t run for reelection in 2014. That came a month after Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the full Commerce Committee and a staunch safety advocate, announced he would not run for reelection.
In a statement, Lautenberg, 89, insisted that his decision did not mark the “end of anything, but rather the beginning” of a two-year push on some of his priorities, including gun safety laws and toxic chemicals. “While I may not be seeking reelection, there is plenty of work to do before the end of this term and I’m going to keep fighting as hard as ever for the people of New Jersey in the U.S. Senate.”
His departure is particularly bad news for transportation safety advocates, considering his long legislative resume. He authored the 1984 law that set the minimum drinking age at 21, and wrote another that banned so-called triple-trailer “killer” trucks. He sponsored the law that lowered the legal blood-alcohol limit to 0.08 percent. And he was instrumental in shaping the safety title for MAP-21, which included funding for teen driving and sobriety programs and improving the safety of motor coaches.
He has also been intimately involved in combating human fatigue and strengthening hours-of-service requirements across modes of transportation. And he had a hand in fending off an attempt by the George W. Bush administration to privatize air traffic control towers.
Safety advocates had high praise for Lautenberg, noting that — with little fanfare — he made his mark on nearly every piece of transportation safety legislation over the past three decades.
“In his career in the Senate, he has probably saved more lives than most doctors — this man has saved tens of thousands of lives and probably most of them don’t know who he is,” said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, who has worked with Lautenberg for more than 20 years.
“Not only has he been an amazing and dedicated champion for highway safety, he’s also taken on the most powerful and well-funded special interests,” Gillan said.
His allies point out that Lautenberg not only was a senior member of Commerce and the Environment and Public Works panel, but he also served on the powerful Appropriations Committee.
“He got programs launched and then made sure there was adequate funding for them,” Gillan said.
At least one group may be a little happier to see Lautenberg depart: large trucking outfits. Lautenberg has been heavily involved in thwarting attempts by the American Trucking Associations to increase limits on what size trucks can use federally funded highways.
Bill Graves, president and CEO of ATA, called Lautenberg a “tireless advocate for transportation safety” and said that “while we may have differed from time to time on the best method of achieving that goal, we have always appreciated and respected his passion for the issue.”
Laura O’Neill, director of government affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which opposed raising truck size and weight limits, said she was “shocked” to hear Lautenberg’s decision, saying he is a “fighter” whom she’d expected to run again.
“In Congress, you’d be hard pressed to find a person more passionate about trucking issues than the senator,” O’Neill said. “He has had a top-notch staff over the years and has worked tirelessly. We haven’t always agreed on every issue but I certainly wish him well.”
Lautenberg’s departure will also have an impact on the perennial fight over Amtrak. Lautenberg has been a regular champion for a robustly funded Amtrak and has been heavily involved in fighting attempts to privatize the Northeast Corridor.
Ed Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, said Lautenberg deserves as much credit as anyone for tanking last year’s GOP effort to privatize the Northeast Corridor operations. Then-House Transportation Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) had introduced a draft privatization bill last year, but had to yank it in the face of significant opposition.
Wytkind noted that when Mica held a hearing on his draft, Lautenberg came to the House to testify against it.
“Which shows you how committed he is. With the limited time … it’s hard to get senators to show up everywhere they need to show up in the Senate let alone work their way over to the House,” Wytkind said.
And Lautenberg got into a scuffle with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over Christie’s decision to pull the plug on an effort to dig a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River to connect New Jersey and Manhattan, known as the ARC Tunnel. Lautenberg has thrown his weight behind a similar project being spearheaded by Amtrak known as the Gateway Tunnel.
Rockefeller, himself a 28-year veteran of the Senate, learned of Lautenberg’s retirement Thursday afternoon during a vote on the floor. He had been with Lautenberg earlier in the day, but the New Jersey Democrat gave him no indication.
“It will leave a big hole on transportation and harbors and ports,” Rockefeller told POLITICO. But even with the departure of two of the Commerce Committee’s most senior Democrats, Rockefeller assured with a smile that “the world will go on.”
The panel’s roster could change between now and 2014, but the next most-senior Democrat on Commerce who could pick up the gavel of Lautenberg’s subcommittee is Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). But she already has passed up other Commerce subcommittee assignments, not to mention the full committee chairmanship itself, so she may not be interested. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) is the next most senior member, but he may not want to give up the gavel of the coveted subcommittee in charge of telecom issues.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) would be the next most-senior lawmaker in a position to jump subcommittees. She now chairs the panel on consumer protection and product safety.
Of course, no senator has a monopoly on attention to safety issues, and there are a handful of junior lawmakers who could step in to help fill the void when Lautenberg leaves the Senate in January 2015.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who just won reelection to a six-year term, recently sponsored a teen driving law and has been involved in aviation safety following a deadly regional jet crash near Buffalo. Both Pryor and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) — the likely successor for Rockefeller as chairman of the full committee — have made auto safety a priority. And in 2009, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) teamed with Lautenberg on legislation to keep repeat drunken drivers off the road.
But Wytkind noted that losing someone with Lautenberg’s long tenure means losing institutional history that isn’t easily replaced.
“I’m sure [his void] will be filled, but you can’t take away from his legacy and story,” Wytkind said. “He’s made transportation a lifetime commitment, and he’s spent decades in public life talking about these kinds of issues.”