Confuse the message with offsets

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Written by

Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor

Pictured: President Carter signing the Staggers Rail Act on October 14, 1980. Representative Harley O. Staggers (DW.Va.), sponsor of the bill, stands to the president’s right. Staggers (1907-1991) was Chairman of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. But directly behind Carter is the person most responsible for shaping the current legislation, Rep. James J. Florio (DN.J.) chairman of the House transport subcommittee.

Surely you remember the Ash-Pan Law, the name of Senator Ash and Representative Pan. In fact, it was a 1908 Railway Safety Act, its name identifying a steam locomotive device.

And what about the Heinz-Pickle Act named after Senator John Heinz (R-Pa.) And Representative Jake Pickle (D-Tex.)? Such named legislation is a humorous thought, but they have never conspired so much during their tenure.

What if you suggested looking at the Parker-Watson Act of 1926 – named after Representative James Parker (RN.Y.) and Senator James Watson (R-Ind.) – to understand a controversy over working on the railroads , you will encounter blank stares until the addition of the better known Railway Labor Act.

So to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare (Happy Windsor Wives) —What do the railroaders mean by repeatedly talking about the increasingly unfamiliar and four-decade-old Staggers Act? They mean, of course, the Harley O. Staggers RAIL Act of 1980, the official name which, if used, at least provides modern opinion leaders and decision-makers not steeped in railway history with a idea that the law has to do with the railways. – in particular, offer the railways partial economic deregulation.

Railroad workers are stuck in a 41-year-old linguistic rut. The time is near to stop citing the Staggers Act – or even the Staggers Rail Act – to celebrate and defend the partial economic deregulation of the railways.

Hell, the law is not only named after a long-dead and now vaguely-deceased lawmaker, remembers West Virginia Democratic lawmaker – Harley O. Staggers – but Staggers didn’t even write the bill that bears his name, nor does he manage his successful passage.

James J. Florio, former Governor of New Jersey (1990-1994) and United States House Representative (DN.J., 1974-1990)

Much of the drafting of the bill, as well as securing its majority vote, was accomplished by Rep. James J. Florio (DN.J.). In a last ditch effort to cross the finish line of what was then the Rail Act of 1980 – it risked being relegated to the trash of history – Florio, in a flash of political sense, renamed it in honor of Staggers, on the verge of retirement and still a hugely popular chairman of the House’s Interstate and Foreign Trade Committee (now the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee). The renaming of the Harley O. Staggers Rail Act also won bipartisan support for the bill in the Senate.

But that was 41 years ago, and Staggers died 30 years ago. Of the 535 members of Congress who in 1980 were given the opportunity to vote on the Harley O. Staggers Rail Act, only five remain in Congress, and two of them have not even voted on the bill.

Few, if any, members of Congress remain since 1980, and among the current rail regulators one was not even born then, two were frolicking in the high school playgrounds, one was in high school and another was then a young lawyer focused on non-transportation issues.

A recent random poll of a dozen House and Senate staff (none working for the relevant railway oversight committees) found that none of them immediately recognized the name ” Staggers Act ”or“ Staggers Rail Act ”. Everyone, however, understood the term “partial economic deregulation” – but in the absence of the inclusion of “economic,” many questioned whether this included regulation of safety.

There is a failure to communicate effectively with a diverse audience when the message is scrambled by an unrecognizable name or term. The easiest thing for a reader to do is to stop reading, or for a listener to ignore the desired message.

One of those who understood the scrambling of the messages was former rail regulator (1989-1992) Edward M. Emmett of the Surface Transportation Board (STB), predecessor of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). Spotting in a draft decision the legal term “nunc pro tunc” (Latin for “now for then”, meaning to now allow something to be done that should have been done earlier), Emmett, after asking if it was named after a Vietnamese general, urged staff to write decisions “for the public who pay them and want to understand them.”

The late Abner Mikva – congressman, federal judge, law professor, White House legal adviser and pol in Chicago – spoke of the danger of simply greeting friends in the public. Translation: If one wishes to capture the attention and support of a diverse group of thought leaders and decision-makers, communicate in easy-to-understand terminology, such as “a 1980 law partially relaxing the economic regulation of roads of iron”.

For those wondering the identity of the five remaining members of Congress since 1980, these are:

  1. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), a member of the House in 1980, who did not vote on what passed as the Harley O. Staggers Rail Act. Oddly enough, Grassley’s wife Barbara was then employed by the rail transport consultancy Chambers, Conlon & Hartwell, from which she recently retired after more than 40 years of service.
  2. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who voted “yes”.
  3. Senator Edward Markey (D-MA), a member of the House in 1980, who voted “yes”.
  4. Senator Richard Shelby (D-AL), a member of the House in 1980, who voted “yes”. Shelby then changed her political party affiliation to Republican.
  5. Representative Don Young (R-Alaska), who did not vote.

Frank N. Wilner is Associate Editor of Railway Age on Capitol Hill. His seventh book, “Railroads & Economic Regulation,” will be published this fall by Simmons-Boardman Books. Building arguments for partial economic deregulation of the railroads in 1980, and then defending the result, Wilner and his colleague Thomas C. White were part of a starting team of the Association of American Railroads led by all-star heavyweights William H. Dempsey, Richard E. Briggs, Harvey A. Levine and Joseph L. Carter, with Dempsey earning Hall of Fame status.

Editor’s Note: By identifying the main persons responsible in Congress for having passed in October 1980 the partial economic deregulation of the railways, Wilner, in his new book, associates them with their various horizons: amateur boxer (Democrat Florio), peanut farmer ( Democratic President Jimmy Carter), insurance salesman (Democratic Rep. Fred Rooney of Pennsylvania), dry cleaner (Rep. Dick Shoup of Montana), taxi contractor (Rep. Edward Madigan of Illinois), delivery boy newspapers (Democratic Senator Howard Cannon of Nevada), career politician and Republican Party maverick (Senator Robert Packwood of Oregon) and descendant of a political dynasty from Louisiana (Democratic Senator Russell B. Long).

Eight years before Staggers, Railway Age devoted an entire issue to debunking myths about the nationalization of the US freight rail system.


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