Calling out ‘dysfunctional’ trucking regs, OOIDA’s Spencer asks Biden to slot him as FMCSA boss

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Updated Jan 19, 2021

Week before last, in an Overdrive Radio podcast interview with our own Senior Editor Todd Dills (which you can listen to in the player above or via this link), top brass at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association cracked wise an assertion that OOIDA President and CEO Todd Spencer should be considered as a candidate to run the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration under president-elect Joe Biden after he’s sworn in.

OOIDA Executive VP Lewie Pugh — in what seemed like good-natured ribbing — said at the very top of the conversation that he hoped to see Spencer nominated for the post, at which he and other OOIDA reps, including Spencer himself, chuckled.

Chuckle no more, as that now appears to be more a tipping of the hand than a passing joke. OOIDA on Monday announced that Spencer has reached out to Biden’s transition team to throw his hat into the ring for consideration for the role of FMCSA administrator.

Todd Spencer, president and CEO of OOIDA, speaking at an FMCSA listening session at the Mid-America Trucking Show in 2017.Todd Spencer, president and CEO of OOIDA, speaking at an FMCSA listening session at the Mid-America Trucking Show in 2017.

In his letter to the president-elect, Spencer sounded like many Overdrive readers over the years: “I know what it is like to make a living behind the wheel of a truck,” he said. Having started driving in 1974, he says he’d bring that experience to help overhaul trucking’s regulatory framework.

“The system we have in place now simply does not work,” Spencer writes in his letter to Biden. “We have never had more regulations than we do today, and we have never had more enforcement of or compliance with those regulations, yet highway safety continues to trend in the wrong direction. This is because regulations often exclude input or direct involvement from those behind the wheel of a truck, and they almost never reflect the diverse operational nature of the trucking industry.”

Though OOIDA and its media arm Land Line played the news up big on Monday, and most trade publications (present company included, now) have circulated the announcement, Spencer expressed nothing less than seeming earnest sincerity in his interest in the job. “Representing our nation’s small-business truckers has been my life’s work,” he said in his letter to Biden’s team. “I still aspire to do this for many years to come, but sometimes we are compelled to make a difference in other ways.”

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You can read Spencer’s letter in full here.

Biden is still fleshing out his highest-level Cabinet positions. In administrations past and present, FMCSA administrator picks took months to develop, so Biden’s timing remains to be seen.

For example, President Barack Obama’s first pick for FMCSA, Anne Ferro, was nominated in July of 2009 — six months after Obama took office. Likewise, Ray Martinez, the most recent full-fledged FMCSA administrator, wasn’t nominated by President Donald Trump until September 2017 — eight months after he took office.

Who, if anyone, Biden and his team may be considering is unknown. And it might largely depend on who Biden nominates as Department of Transportation secretary, as he or she could steer Biden through a short list of candidates.

It’s not unheard of for lobbyists or association group bosses to be tapped for such jobs. Ferro, for example, headed the Maryland Motor Truck Association before being selected by Obama to head FMCSA. Under Trump, there’s been no shortage of industry insiders tapped for regulatory roles across many federal agencies.

There’s no true trend for FMCSA, as the agency still is less than two decades old, though it’s mostly career bureaucrats and those with enforcement backgrounds who’ve run the agency. In addition to Ferro and Martinez, four other presidential appointees have headed FMCSA.

Obama at the end of his second term nominated Scott Darling to be FMCSA administrator. Darling had held the position on an interim basis after Ferro’s departure, and he’d previously held the post of chief legal counsel at FMCSA.

Likewise, President George W. Bush nominated the first, second and third administrators. Joe Clapp was a former trucking executive, tasked with getting the fledgling agency off the ground after Congress established it in 2001. He quit in 2002 and Bush nominated Annette Sandberg, who’d held other DOT roles, to take his place. After Sandberg resigned, Bush selected another DOT bureaucrat, John Hill, to helm FMCSA.

Give the Overdrive Radio podcast above and below a listen to hear more from Spencer and Pugh, as well as OOIDA Communications Director Norita Taylor, about what they’d like to see from the incoming Biden administration regarding trucking policies — no matter who’s tapped to head FMCSA.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Joe Clapp had been a railroad executive. He was in fact an executive at a trucking fleet before becoming head of FMCSA.