A Metaphor for Both Political Parties

I had an interesting experience in dealing with my local representatives in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. I use the word “Representatives” because this transcends both my current (Republican) representative, Todd Stephens as well as his (Democratic) predecessor, Rick Taylor.

This tale begins with an incident that made national news, and which is the stuff of a rather long Wikipedia entry: the recalls of various Toyota vehicles over the course of the years 2009 to 2011.

Full disclosure: I do not currently drive, nor could I actually imagine myself ever driving, a Toyota vehicle. Nothing against the brand, but they don’t make a car I actually, you know, fit inside of. That said, the issues that Toyota had to deal with the negative publicity of, could quite literally happen to any car manufacturer.

One of the more frightening things associated with those recalls, was the fact that some of the issues were not mechanical in nature; instead, they were defects associated with the computers that regulate many of the functions of the cars themselves.

In February, 2010, two different committees (on the federal level) held hearings about the defects, and that’s truly where my story begins.

A few months later, I was thinking about the congressional hearings and I called Rick Taylor. Let’s face it: although the federal government might dictate specific standards that have to be upheld for, well, just about everything to do with our cars, it’s the states that actually uphold those standards. And, quite frankly, the states do it differently.

To use an easy example, I, as a resident of the state of Pennsylvania, have to have my car inspected annually. Because I also happen to reside in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, I also have to have my car’s emissions inspected annually. There are other parts of the state that do not require the emissions inspection.

If I lived in New Jersey, I would need to have my car inspected every other year. (I believe that’s based upon the model year of the car, but since I drive a 2011 Chevy Equinox, I know it’s new enough that it doesn’t need the annual inspection older vehicles would need…)

So I called Rick Taylor’s office to find out if state inspection rules cover only mechanical defects or if they covered computer defects as well. (Knowing full well it’s unlikely that they’d cover computer defects because the nature of the problem was so relatively new.) The intent of my call, obviously, was to encourage some degree of movement to change state inspection standards so that they would encompass computer defects as well as mechanical ones.

I don’t have the exact date of my call to Rick Taylor’s office, but it was late summer or early fall. I never got a response back from him.

I am not in a position to judge whether or not the failure of Representative Taylor or one of his workers to respond was indicative of Taylor’s overall style, or if it was a function of his being embroiled in a nasty re-election campaign, but either way, I got no response.

After Rick Taylor lost his re-election bid to Todd Stephens, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and called a second time, reiterating my concerns and maybe making it so that he could pass on my inquiry to his successor.

Again, I never heard a response. Here, I can’t be sure if the inquiry simply got lost in the transition or if it was passed on to Todd Stephens and Stephens didn’t do anything either.

About a month ago, I took my family to the local activities going on as a result of National Night Out.

Todd Stephens had a representative set up at one of the kiosks there, so I decided to ask again about this still-existing safety concern. Only two years have passed since then, so, although something could have changed, the initial question still stands: do the state inspection rules actually cover this issue, or do they need amending?

I have received two or three callbacks from a member of Stephens’s office, with responses that effectively ranged from the acknowledgment of what I already knew, to the laughable. (It turns out that the person I was in contact with, is currently taking a leave of absence in his duties as an employee of Stephens’s official office in order to manage his re-election campaign.)

Zack did confirm that there haven’t been any changes to the requirements for state inspections. But he first began by pointing out that movement needs to take place on a federal level. The National Transportation Safety Board needs to set the appropriate standards for state regulation, or so I was told.

That’s actually not entirely true. Yes, the NTSB needs to lay forward the minimum standards, but the decisions about what to inspect and what not to inspect are solely within the purview of the state government, not the federal.

There’s room for debate as to whether or not it’s right that there be fifty unique sets of standards for state inspection. But that is the current reality and I can’t imagine anyone arguing for a change there.

Of course, what the federal government does, is set minimum standards: the seatbelts must have a certain minimum strength, the airbags must deploy if the vehicle decelerates by more than a certain rate in a certain amount of time, the brake pads must be at least so thick, the carbon dioxide emissions must be no greater than a certain number of parts per thousand. I don’t know exactly what the standards are (obviously), but those standards do exist.

And, of course, the states can impose more rigid standards than the minimum federal standards. They can even set their own, when none exist. California emission standards are both more rigid and older than the federal ones.

So when Zack recommended that I contact Senator Pat Toomey, I couldn’t help but laugh. Pat Toomey, a darling of the Tea Party and, asking him for increased government regulation is kind of tantamount to asking Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine to vote for Paul Ryan.

So it’s an interesting metaphor. In this one anecdote, both parties were completely ineffectual. So which is better in terms of being ineffective: receiving no response at all, or receiving a response that effectively passes the buck without making any real progress?

And this is an issue that should truly transcend labels like democrat/republican/liberal/conservative. It’s an issue of safety, pure and simple.


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