WASHINGTON — A request by the U.S. Department of Transportation for public input on how American farmers are regulated is getting pushback from some members of Congress who represent rural and agricultural districts.
They say it might lead to burdensome new regulations and could require more farmers to get commercial driver's licenses to operate their agricultural transport equipment.
The DOT says it only wants feedback from the public and isn't seeking to foist new regulations on the agricultural community. It says it wants the opinions of farmers and others on how existing commercial truck-safety regulations affect them.
Still, some lawmakers worry that the DOT could be preparing to tighten the rules and impose new requirements on farm employees who drive agricultural transport equipment. Some fear that any new rules could include requiring commercial driver's licenses, which require a written test and the potential for drug and alcohol testing.
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"There are lots of issues that Washington needs to be active upon, but this is not one of them. We have adequate regulations within the states," said Rep. Larry Kissell, D-N.C., a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
"Farmers are very concerned about doing their jobs safely. They don't need this added regulation," he added.
Kissell, who represents a district that produces cotton, peaches and corn, issued a statement on the issue after he read a news article about the public comment period. He also heard from farmers in his district who are worried about new regulations.
Informed later that the DOT says it's not issuing new regulations, Kissell spokesman Christopher Schuler said, "We're glad to see they're backtracking and reconsidering the proposal."
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an agency within the DOT, put out the request for public comment earlier this year as it examines three issues: the distinctions between interstate and intrastate commerce, the exceptions states are allowed to make in whether to require farmers to get commercial driver's licenses and how farm vehicles that operate on public roads should be regulated. The comment period ends Aug. 1.
A spokeswoman for the agency didn't answer specific emailed questions about why the department issued the request, other than to say "safety is the most important" priority of the DOT. She pointed to an article about the issue written last week by Anne S. Ferro, the administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which will be published in several agricultural trade publications.
"We're well aware of the concern within the agricultural community regarding these three issues. The comment period is an opportunity to bring those concerns to the table," Ferro wrote.
Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., whose district includes farming communities around Wichita, was critical of any potential new DOT rules.
"These rules should not be put in place. They would harm American agriculture, certainly here in Kansas, and for no true benefit," he said. Wheat, corn and soybeans are some of the agricultural commodities that are produced in his district.
"These farmers have been doing this for an awfully long time and these communities know how to operate these vehicles safely," Pompeo added.
Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., who represents a district that relies heavily on agriculture for its economy, said he was worried about "over-regulation on our agriculture community" and that farmers "should be exempt from these commercial requirements."
"I think we always need to guard against overreaching regulations which are just not necessary," he added.
Don Lipton, a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said his organization also was concerned about any federal effort to require farmers to get commercial driver's licenses.
Farmer Dane Sanders, 30, who grows cotton and wheat in the northern Texas Panhandle town of Floydada, said any regulation that might require farmers to get commercial driver's licenses to operate their equipment would raise his costs.
"We would have to hire additional employees just so we could abide by the amount of hours" that limit how long commercial drivers can work, he said. During peak harvesting season, farm employees often work long hours.
Some safety advocates view opposition to federal safety rules as symbolic of an unwise anti-government backlash by business and some political figures.
"There's a lot of knee-jerk anti-regulation sentiment in Congress right now, and many industries are opening up their wallets to dismantle important public protections," said Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. His group hasn't taken an official position on the issue of commercial driver's licenses for farmers.
"Congress should be farsighted when it comes to protecting the public, but it's easy for people to be against regulations until they get injured," Baxandall said. "Then they're outraged no law exists."
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