Why Ian Jefferies?

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor
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Ian Jefferies

News item: Ian Jefferies, 42, currently Senior vice President for Government Affairs at the Association of American Railroads (AAR), will succeed Ed Hamberger as President and CEO on Jan. 1, 2019. Most notably, Jefferies will serve as the railroad industry’s chief congressional lobbyist and spokesperson.

Many who anticipated the appointment of a higher profile individual privately expressed surprise, but as the Chinese proverb reads, “Good sense is the master of human life”—and even the omphalocentric* should recognize why the choice of Jefferies makes good sense.

During the search for Hamberger’s successor, speculative chatter focused on various members of Congress who are retiring, might choose to retire or are shown the exit by voters.

Surely Hamberger’s $1.8 million in annual compensation, compared with the $174,000 paid members of Congress, is an alluring inducement. (Jefferies’ 2016 compensation was $487,000, according to publicly available data reported to the IRS by non-profit organizations.)

Weighing against choosing a former lawmaker is that House members are prohibited from lobbying their peers for one year after departure from Congress—senators for two years. More problematic is workplace motivation. Where congressional staff (Jefferies is a former senior Senate aide) are inured to working 60-hour weeks with an emphasis on research and collegiality, lawmakers more typically are expert in the art of fulminating, schmoozing and delegating.

This is no small consideration, as the railroads’ extraordinary success in winning converts to their legislative agenda traces its lineage to resolute research producing intelligible, condensed communication—a mantra once so oft-repeated at internal AAR legislative strategy sessions that it became known by the refrain, “When the answer is longer than the question, you lose.”

Jefferies possesses other tangible value. From 2009 to his poaching by the AAR from the Senate in December 2013, Jefferies was the conduit for objectives and strategy between captive rail shippers and their congressional amplifier-in-chief, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), now retired, who was the lead sponsor (as a member and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee) of what railroads termed reregulation legislation.

Stunned shippers professed déjà vu, reminded, for example, of a lengthy list of White House nominated and Senate-confirmed regulators who departed the Interstate Commerce Commission and its Surface Transportation Board (STB) successor for railroad paychecks, including gigs as consultants and outside legal counsel.

Bygones are bygones in the Washington swamp, which explains the reaction of one veteran shipper attorney to Jefferies’ elevation: “It’s a shrewd move. They have been in a position to see and observe him, and so he is a known entity, maybe a groomed one—and a risk to leave if passed over.” In fact, Jefferies has been under Hamberger’s tutelage and the AAR board’s gaze for fully five years, suggesting he effectively leveraged his already gained advantage over competing candidates.

That Jefferies is a Democrat is largely irrelevant. Rail lobbyists dutifully recite over their morning bowl of Wheaties, “When around Democrats, we ‘speak’ Democrat. When around Republicans, we ‘speak’ Republican. But we always ‘speak’ railroad.”

Also notable is that while employed by the Senate Commerce Committee, Jefferies worked with fellow staffer Stephen Gardner, who departed for Amtrak and is now viewed by many as a shadow president whose quite visible hand guides Amtrak President-by-title Richard Anderson. This linkage could be instrumental in eventually disentangling a less-than-friendly legal embrace over on-time arrivals of Amtrak passenger trains utilizing freight railroad track.

Additionally, of tangible value to AAR members, is that STB Chairman Ann Begeman once worked with Jefferies from her Republican side of the Senate Commerce Committee; and awaiting Senate confirmation to the STB is current Senate Commerce Committee senior Republican legislative aide Patrick Fuchs. Thorny regulatory issues of significant consequence to railroads will be before the STB in 2019, and Jefferies didn’t arrive at the AAR aboard a turnip wagon.

While truck-size-and weight issues of competitive importance to railroads are within the purview of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, Jefferies is no stranger to that sibling committee, that topic, or, notably, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, under whose oversight are most railroad-related issues.

Where Jefferies may be weak is on the subject of rail safety and service. Yet there hasn’t been an AAR president with actual railroad operating experience in 47 years since Thomas M. Goodfellow, a former president of the Long Island Rail Road. Subsequent AAR presidents, including Hamberger, proved to be fast and effective students of the subject, and are typically accompanied to congressional and regulatory agency hearings by appropriate experts.

Finally, Jefferies’ undergraduate degree is from the University of Kentucky (UK), providing a connection to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican whose law degree is from UK. Kentucky basketball is a perennial conversation ice-breaker; and not to put too fine a point on it, McConnell’s spouse is Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who, like Jefferies, earned an undergraduate degree in economics.

On Jan. 1, the training wheels will be removed, revealing the quality of the mentoring Jefferies received and absorbed, and the true content of his character. For freight railroads, especially, much rides on the consequence.

AAR presidents:

John J. Pelley (1934-1946)

Robert V. Fletcher (interim, 1946-1947)

William T. Faricy (1947-1957)

Daniel P. Loomis (1957-1967)

Thomas M. Goodfellow (1967-1971)

Stephen Ailes (1971-1977)

William H. Dempsey (1977-1991)

Edwin L. Harper (1992-1997)

M.B. Oglesby Jr. (1997-1998)

Edward R. Hamberger (1998-2018)

Ian Jefferies (2019- )

*“overly introspective”

Frank N. Wilner is author of six books, including Amtrak: Past, Present, Future; Understanding the Railway Labor Act; and Railroad Mergers: History, Analysis, Insight, all published by Simmons-Boardman Books. Wilner earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and labor relations from Virginia Tech. He has been assistant vice president, policy, for the Association of American Railroads; a White House appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board; and director of public relations for the United Transportation Union. He is a past president of the Association of Transportation Law Professionals. Wilner drafted the railroad section of the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership (Volumes I and II), which were policy blueprints for the two Reagan Administrations; and was a guest columnist for the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine.

Categories: Class I, Freight, Intercity, Intermodal, Passenger, Regulatory, Safety Tags: , , ,