As a rule, most Congressional hearings don’t draw a crowd. This is particularly true when the issue under consideration is esoteric or exceedingly technical, designations applicable to yesterday’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit hearing on environmental and labor standards in the port trucking industry. (“Sounds boring,” a friend of mine yawned as I explained my morning plans.)

But this hearing was packed. In fact, the committee’s chambers were so full that they had to open an overflow room upstairs—which also filled up rapidly—where the interested could watch the proceedings on large, flatscreen televisions. For the next three hours and fifteen minutes we watched Democratic lawmakers pummel the trucking industry’s witnesses as the overflow crowd cheered. (Few Republicans bothered to show up for the hearing, and those who did made inane points and then vanished for long periods of time.)

By the end of the hearing it was clear that the issue, specifically the plight of drivers stuck in an abusive labor market, had struck a chord with the subcommittee.

“This system has to get better,” Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-WA) said at the hearing's end. “[I’ll speak with] Chairman [George] Miller (D-CA) at Education and Labor Committee [about] putting our two investigation and oversight staffs together to delve into these questions more… but I really believe this is not the last time this committee will be dealing with this issue.” Earlier in the hearing DeFazio mentioned the possibility of using the committee’s subpoena power to sort out the conflicting claims of the trucking industry and the drivers, who are backed by environmental and labor groups.

More after the jump.

The 2008 Port of LA’s Clean Trucks Program was the center of attention. The plan has successfully reduced toxic emissions by almost 80 percent, by banning the oldest, dirtiest trucks from admittance to the Port and bringing in newer, more environmentally friendly models. But under the current port trucking system, low-income drivers classified as “independent contractors” would have to shoulder the costs of the environmental upgrades’, putting them under an even heavier burden. (As “independent contractors” the drivers have to devote more than half their income to expenses, they receive no benefits from their employers, they are ineligible for unemployment benefits, and unable to organize a union.)

But the progressive LA plan ameliorated the drivers’ financial straits by requiring trucking companies to enter into concession contracts with the port, which make them responsible for the management and upkeep of the vehicles, and eventually their drivers too. (The plan would have required companies to phase their drivers in as full-time employees.)

But LA port’s plan came under attack from the American Trucking Assocation. The ATA’s lawsuit evoked an obscure federal law that forbids local governments, including ports, from interfering with trucks under their purview. The lawsuit only targeted the company ownership and employee requirements, leaving the ban on old, dirty trucks in place. As a result, companies that had entered into concessionary agreements, turned around and canceled their drivers’ employee status and forced them to lease the new clean trucks, further harnessing them to the companies while putting the cost of maintenance, gas, etc. back on the drivers, and erasing their benefits.

After hearing three hours of debate over the above issues, Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) went on the offensive against the industry witnesses.

Nadler: “The majority of leases prevent the driver from working for more than one company, is that true?”

[The ATA’s Representative]: “It is true.”

Nadler: “If that is true, isn’t this serfdom? You are an independent operator but you can only work for one company? How are you in any sense an independent operator?”

ATA: “...You could break the lease and you could go work for another company.”

[After more back and forth, a trucker witness testified that in many instances if a driver breaks the lease, they lose the truck.]

Nadler: “If it is true that if you break the lease, you lose the truck then all of this becomes completely coercive, would it not be?”

ATA: “Under the strict terms of your question?”

Nadler: “It isn’t a strict term, its either true or its not true. We heard testimony from the driver…that under many of these agreements if you break the lease, you lose the truck. Which means you can’t break the lease. Which means you have to show up when you are asked to show up, carry what [they tell you], and under whatever terms, which means, under the normal English language, maybe not under some provision of federal law that ought to be changed, you aren’t an independent contractor.”

In the next couple weeks, Nadler is expected introduce legislation that would give all ports the ability to regulate the industry and allow LA port to circumvent the ATA’s lawsuit. Every Democrat on the subcommittee that spoke seemed to support the truckers. (Congressmen McDermott and Inslee signed a letter in support, although they do not sit on the committee, along with dozens of other House Dems.) If Nadler's legislation passes, then all of the nation's ports, including the Port of Seattle, will be able to adopt a progressive Clean Trucks Program akin to the LA model. And don't we all like environmental policy better when it isn't built on the backs of workers?