Sleep apnea bill awakens Congress09/24/2013
By Adam Snider
The tale of a sleep apnea bill shows what just might be the most efficient Congress has been in years.
In a few short weeks, two House members went from writing a simple two-page bill to seeing the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration committing to a formal rule making on sleep apnea testing and treatment for truckers and other professional drivers.
Along the way, Reps. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) and Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) secured the support of major industry groups and dozens of their House colleagues. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee unanimously passed their bill Thursday, just a week after it was introduced. It’s slated for a House vote Wednesday, just 13 days after introduction. That success aside, what they most wanted was for FMCSA to go on record in favor of a rule making — and that’s just what they got.
“A lot of times in Washington, D.C., if you get both political parties to agree on something that’s very practical, you can move things more quickly,” Bucshon said in an interview.
“The speed surprised me a little bit. But I think it shows that things can happen quickly, can get done here,” Lipinski told POLITICO. “We’ve gotten so used to everything getting bogged down. Even sometimes when there is bipartisan agreement, things still get bogged down, but it also shows that the Transportation Committee is working well now.”
The bill’s momentum doesn’t appear to be slowing — Bucshon said House leadership has told him the measure will come to the floor under suspension of the rules, a procedure used to fast track largely noncontroversial legislation.
Though the lawmakers took only modest credit for their bill having prompted FMCSA’s announcement, their colleagues were more effusive in their praise. Even during Thursday’s markup, which was dominated by a major water resources bill, several committee members took the time to praise the duo and say the bill inspired FMCSA’s action.
“I think the action of the committee has already produced the result we intended,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the top Democrat on the highways panel.
“I’ve got to believe some of it is,” Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) told POLITICO when asked if the bill prompted FMCSA to change course. “Being bipartisan can be a powerful force.”
After the bill was introduced, FMCSA initially committed to act “through a public notice and comment process.” That addressed one of the concerns from lawmakers — that industry groups wouldn’t be able to weigh in.
But the night before the markup, an FMCSA official contacted POLITICO with a more definitive statement, saying the agency will act “through the formal rule-making process after collecting and analyzing the necessary data and research.”
Bucshon and Lipinski both said they were pleased with FMCSA’s commitment to rule making but still plan to press ahead with their legislation.
They had plenty of help from their fellow lawmakers, but Bucshon and Lipinski also had the trucking industry, a hefty force, behind them. The American Trucking Associations and other groups had recently written to lawmakers in support of the bill.
“We’d like to thank Reps. Bucshon and Lipinski, as well as all our supporters in the House, for moving this important bill forward,” ATA President and CEO Bill Graves said in a statement after committee passage. “While FMCSA has said they are receptive to a rule-making process in lieu of sleep apnea guidance, we urge the House and Senate to follow through with swift approval” of the bill. The American Bus Association also put out a statement in support.
The sleep apnea bill is child’s play compared with the heavy legislative lifts the committee faces next year with writing a new surface transportation bill just as the Highway Trust Fund is going broke and needs tens of billions of extra dollars to maintain current spending levels.
Shuster, however, isn’t worried about that just yet.