TRANSPORTATION, TREASURY, HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT, THE JUDICIARY, THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, AND INDEPENDENT AGENCIES APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2006--CONFERENCE REPORT -- (Senate - November 18, 2005)
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Mr. PRYOR. Mr. President, I rise today to voice my disappointment and frustration with provisions included in this conference report that severely weaken critical consumer protection law for those that ship household goods using commercial movers.
As the ranking member of the Commerce Committee's Consumer Affairs, Product Safety, and Insurance Subcommittee, as a former State attorney general, and as a leading member of the Committee's Surface Transportation Subcommittee for motor carrier issues, I must express my outrage that this conference report undermines the consumer protections for victims of unscrupulous movers that were part of the transportation bill, known as SAFETEA-LU, signed into law less than 4 months ago.
These provisions were inserted despite commitments I received to the contrary. We had an agreement that we would not seek to modify the household goods consumer protection language within the Commerce Committee's jurisdiction beyond an amendment that was offered as part of the floor consideration of this appropriations bill in the Senate.
Instead, over the objections of myself, Senator Inouye, Senator Stevens, Senator Lott, and the leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, this new language was forced into the conference report in order to protect a few big moving companies from increased public accountability.
Adding insult to injury, provisions that were specifically rejected during the conference on the transportation bill this summer were included in addition to language that goes well beyond those items and further undercuts the work Congress did to aid consumers who face fraud, extortion, and abuse at the hands of unregulated moving companies.
As a former State attorney general, I know the public benefits from local and State officials who are dedicated to protecting consumers. Over the past year, picking up on work begun by Senator McCain, and working with Senators Lott, Inouye, and Stevens, I have tried to find ways to assist the many citizens from all across this country who have been victimized by moving companies and have nowhere to turn.
The most outrageous situation is when a moving company holds all of a consumer's possessions until they pay thousands of dollars in excess of the original estimate for the move. This practice, known as ``hostage goods,'' is extortion, plain and simple. And it leaves consumers helpless in a strange city, with none of their possessions and no recourse.
I say helpless because, although there are some Federal laws to protect consumers when shipping their goods in interstate commerce--protections we enhanced with the passage of SAFETEA-LU--the Department of Transportation, DOT, is simply not suited to police the 1.5 million interstate moves that occur each year.
In 1995, the predecessor of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, FMCSA, assumed the regulatory duties of the household goods moving industry previously carried out by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Until recently, FMCSA had a total of 3 personnel assigned to handle all of the consumer complaints for the entire Nation and could do little about them. I understand that FMCSA has received nearly 20,000 consumer complaints since January 2001. They have taken little action in this area because FMCSA contends that its limited resources must be focused on truck safety, the agency's primary mission.
States, which want to get involved and already oversee consumer protections for the intrastate movement of household goods with little controversy, have been told by the courts that they have no jurisdiction in this area, since it involves interstate commerce. The net result is that moving companies operating in interstate commerce face no regulation of their commercial behavior, and therefore, continue to take advantage of consumers.
To address this glaring problem, SAFETEA-LU created a partnership with the states by allowing them to enforce certain Federal consumer protections rules as determined by the Secretary of Transportation--a model that works well in other areas.
It is so disheartening that only a few months after these new authorities were put in place--before they could even take effect and be put to use to protect consumers--these provisions have been reopened and basically gutted on behalf of a few big moving companies that want to keep operating without real oversight.
The household goods provisions added to this conference report will: limit a State attorneys general's ability to initiate an action to enforce Federal household goods consumer protection law to only cases involving new moving companies or those who egregiously violate Federal motor carrier safety regulations. The effect of this provision is to totally insulate most movers, particularly larger and more-established moving companies, from even the threat of action by a State, regardless of how outrageous their violation of Federal consumer protection law may be.
Further, the provisions will: apply these same enforcement limitations to State authorities that already regulate intrastate movers and require that the State consumer agencies enforcing Federal household goods consumer laws bring their cases in Federal courts only, where they would languish on average for 3 more years. What are consumers supposed to do while everything they own is being held hostage by a mover during those 3 years?
I believe these provisions go well beyond anything the Commerce Committee would ever have agreed to, had we the opportunity to consider these directly. The only thing positive I can say about them is that they are set to end after Fiscal Year 2006.
This language is an affront to all authorizing committees that--after years of discussion--agreed upon these provisions. It is wrong that those who did not get what they wanted--were rejected both in the Senate and in conference--can then hijack the consumer protection provisions that this Congress approved in July.
The passage of the SAFETEA-LU household goods language signaled Congress's willingness to stand up for the consumer and correct an injustice that occurs far too often. It is sad that this conference report seeks to undo this achievement and make it significantly more difficult for our citizens to get the recourse they deserve.
State attorneys general and State consumer protection agencies are much more likely than the Federal Government to doggedly pursue justice for their citizens in these cases. A letter from the National Association of Attorneys General on January 21, 2004, proves this point, by indicating the association's full support for State enforcement of Federal household goods consumer protections. The letter, signed 48 State attorneys general, specifically rejects complaints from the moving industry against this new authority.
In conclusion, let me say that I appreciate the work of the other House and Senate appropriations conferees and my colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee for trying to keep these provisions out of their bill. It is unfortunate that they ended up being included, and I plan to work to see that they are overturned.