Secretary of Transportation James Burnley

Last month, President Reagan sent the name of Undersecretary of Transportation, James H. Burnley IV to the U.S. Senate for confirmation as the new Secretary to replace Elizabeth Dole. At that time, Democratic and Republican Senators were quoted as saying that Burnley would be controversial. Some Senators thought he was a hothead, especially after his stark rudeness toward Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) when they both appeared on Face the Nation. Other Senators disliked his policies which cozied up to the auto, railroad and aviation industries. Various aviation and auto safety groups spoke out in criticism of the 39 year old corporate lawyer. On November 17, 1987, the Senate Commerce Committee opened hearings on Burnley’s nomination. In a packed hearing room, the Senators took their turn questioning him. It was a love-fest.

Apart from this writer, no one else asked to testify. The next day, by a voice vote, the Committee sent his certain nomination to the whole Senate.

What happened in the time between his nomination and the love-fest demonstrates to citizens the atrophy of the Senate’s exercise of its constitutional advice and consent authority.

First, Burnley began a round of visits to the key Senators. He apologized twice to Senator Lautenberg who then indicated he was no longer interested in opposing him. He then told each Senator what they wanted to hear, especially about their pet problems back home with an airport, a highway or a port.

As reports began emanating from the Senate that he would be confirmed, groups such as the Airline Pilots Association, the Flight Attendants Association and the Machinists Union, who deplored Burnley, decided not to testify. Why provoke the ire of the next Transportation Secretary in a hopeless cause to block him?

In his prepared testimony, Burnley did not refer to any of the criticisms of him and managed to ignore mentioning the most important mission of his Department — the highway-motor vehicle safety program. Senator John Danforth (R-MO), long irritated with Burnley and Dole for their shelving much of this program, questioned their tenure for violating Congressional deadlines requiring action on several motor vehicle safety standards. Burnley’s response was a syrupy series of phrases about the seriousness of the nominee’s commitment to traffic safety. Whereupon, Danforth avoided any followup.

Burnley’s supporters in the White House made much of his experience and continuity with the Dole years there. The Senators, who had sharply condemned much of this experience and continuity, – declined to make their case.

Americans live or die, depending on what the Secretary does or does not do in safety policies and enforcement regarding autos, trucks, vans, highways, aircraft, air traffic, rail, bus and marine travel. Burnley is an ideological hater of safety regulation. If it was up to him, he would scrap these programs’ but since he cannot, he ices them instead.

Burnley’s middle name could be “no action.” There has been no action on side impact standards for vehicles — a potential great life saver –, no upgraded, standards for light trucks and minivans, no overdue brake standards for those-huge trucks bearing down on car drivers, no recalls of millions of defective cars from the Ford Park- in-Reverse to the Audi 5000 problems. There is no action on the Research Safety Vehicle Program, which in its early stages, told Detroit how feasible and economic many safety features could be.

Where Burnley and Dole did act, it was to push seat belt use laws in order to revoke the Supreme Court-mandated automatic crash protection rule that would accelerate installation of superior air bags.

Burnley does jump through hoops, however, when GM and Ford demand such acrobatics. This, he did in reducing the fuel efficiency requirements from 27.5 mpg to 26 mpg, in spite of the ten year lead time that Congress gave these companies in 1975. That is Burnley’s contribution to the next petroleum energy crisis.

In aviation, Burnley has been a fanatic hardliner. He refuses, even six years later, to urge rehiring some of the fired air traffic controllers to ease the fatigue and paucity of the controllers now working and make the skies safer. He never met an airline merger he did not like, having approved 20 out of 20 of them. He has presided over the reduction of aircraft maintenance and federal inspection. As for any new aircraft safety standards, forget it.

In the month before he was nominated, Burnley turned gloomy after hearing about Congressional opposition. He started interviewing with a corporate law firm, displaying his ability to bring in trans­portation clients.

When he leaves the Department in fourteen months, his legacy will have become a fulsome advertisement for his choice of corporate clients.

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