Staggers what? Time for a name change

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor

Have others noticed that aside from those few souls conscripted to promote the interests of railroads on Capitol Hill, the term “Staggers Rail Act” has lost its intended meaning?

Among non-railroad opinion leaders and decision makers, the words “dotard” and “covfefe” are more recognizable than the almost four-decades-old 1980 law providing railroads with partial economic deregulation and named in honor of a now long-deceased 16-term Democratic congressman from West Virginia—Harley O. Staggers Sr.—whose legislative support was essential for the law’s congressional passage.

Yet mention the Staggers Rail Act in the teeming confines of Capitol Hill’s favored watering holes—where a not-inconsequential portion of the public’s business is informally conducted—and the recipient will so struggle to decode its meaning that ensuing and more vital words will be lost in the ether of competing chatter.

As the first rule of successful retailing is that the customer is always correct, the first rule of effective communication is to inhabit the recipient’s verbal comfort zone. The name, “Staggers Rail Act,” hasn’t traveled well over time. Worse, it often is truncated by its rail industry defenders to “Staggers Act,” removing even a slight hint of its province.

Consider that but nine of the current 535 members of the House and Senate were in office upon the enactment of the 1980 Staggers Rail Act.* Yet current railroad entreaties not to reverse the clock and reregulate, habitually reference a law more likely to be met with, “What”?

Should not the proselytizing of the broad societal benefits of partial economic deregulation be in the lingua franca (common language) of those for whom the preaching is intended?

It is beyond time to retire the term, “Staggers Rail Act,” in delineating the conversion of pre-1980 financially frail, failing and failed railroads to today’s technologically advanced industry resurgent in profitability, service quality and prospects.

The arcane term, “Staggers Rail Act,” could well be replaced with a trouble-free phrase, “partial economic deregulation.”

The adjective “partial” helps to soothe apprehension of bare-knuckles capitalism. The second adjective, “economic,” assures the listener that there is no intended tinkering with public safety. The noun “deregulation” reinforces President Ronald Reagan’s pronouncement—still extensively shared among those of all political stripes: “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”

Foremost, the phrase, “partial economic deregulation,” is understandable, non-polemic and constructively lays the foundation for a more detailed explanation of its virtues.

Harley, we knew ye well and we cherish your memory. But seriously, dude, we need a name change to keep your legacy intact.

A word on Mr. Staggers:

Harley Orrin Staggers Sr. (D-W.Va.), who died in 1991 at age 84, served 16 terms in the House, and for 15 years chaired the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, which then had railroad oversight.

Staggers’ legislative support was indispensable for creation of Amtrak in 1970, and passage in 1973 of the Regional Rail Reorganization (3-R) Act, allowing federally financed restructuring of insolvent Northeast railroads. In 1976, Staggers helped to assure passage of the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform (4-R) Act, which folded six Northeastern insolvents into newly created Conrail, restricted actions of rail regulators and encouraged them to assist railroads in becoming revenue adequate.

House Transportation Subcommittee Chairman James J. Florio (D-N.J.)—in fact the principal architect of railroad partial economic deregulation and the bill’s House floor manager—won House and Senate support to name the legislation in honor of Staggers, calling it a “fitting tribute” to Staggers’ “dedication to a sound rail transportation system.” Staggers retired shortly after President Jimmy Carter signed the Staggers Rail Act into law in October 1980.

Long live the Staggers Rail Act. Longer live partial economic deregulation.

* The only nine current members of Congress present at the enactment of the 1980 Staggers Rail Act are Senators Bill Nelson (D-Fla.),Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.); Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), and Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) and Don Young (R-Alaska). Grassley, Markey, Nelson and Shelby then were House members.

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