Congressman Bill McCollum was busy with hearings related to the big federal crackdown on drug-running in the Caribbean when I called his Washington, D.C., office for help. Even so, his press secretary said he would be unavailable to defend Congress' decision to kill off the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and what that meant for thousands of new residents who hire a company to move their possessions to Central Florida.
I was now among those thousands. A new job meant that I was moving with my wife and three kids to Orlando from Cleveland, Ohio. The moving company had given me a "guaranteed not-to-exceed" bid. But every time I turned around, I was being hit up for more money. I felt I was being extorted. Who could help me?
I was referred to McCollum's local office, although my only questions related to what McCollum expected people like me -- whose possessions could effectively be held for ransom by movers -- to do now that the ICC had been disbanded. Linda Mitchler, a former ICC employee now with the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHA), already had explained my limited options under the "self help" provisions written into the federal law that eliminated the ICC, effective Jan. 1, 1996.
1. File a lawsuit against the company at my expense.
2. Begin an arbitration resolution process (if the claim involved less than $1,000).
In other words, you're on your own.
"FHA doesn't do the consumer advocacy work that was done by the old ICC. That's up to the individual," Mitchler said. "We're not supposed to really get involved."
For the first 39 years of my life, the ICC had seemed to be one of those worthless federal bureaucracies rightfully targeted by Newt Gingrich and his soldiers in the Republican Revolution of 1995-96. The assault on big government, billed as the Contract With America, sputtered to a halt far from its objective, but not before eliminating the ICC.
Formed in 1887, the ICC was the first federal regulatory agency. Originally, it was formed to protect Americans from abuses by the railroads, which were taking advantage of the monopoly they once had over freight hauling, charging exorbitant rates and delivering whenever they felt like it. Over the years, the ICC took on regulation of shipping as well as trucking companies, which now monopolize the business of moving people's possessions across the country.
In fact, slick marketing materials provided by moving firms to prospective customers still include a pamphlet outlining the individual's rights and responsibilities under ICC regulations. The introduction begins: "The Interstate Commerce Commission regulations protect consumers on interstate moves."
Without support from this euthanized government watchdog, I was frustrated at my lack of options in responding to the rude, unfair -- and for all I knew, illegal -- treatment I was subjected to by North American Van Lines and "Nagle/Poor Moving Solutions," the local agent I had hired to manage my move here from Cleveland.
It was after 5 p.m. on Good Friday eve when I first realized that I might need some help. The truck driver, who had repeatedly assured me that everything would fit into his trailer, advised me that he was then leaving for Florida -- although my baby's crib, our vacuum cleaner, and a garage full of other stuff would not be heading south with him.
These items had become "overflow" and would not reach my new home in Orlando until more than two weeks after the main shipment, and one week after my second car, which I had expected to be shipped along with the rest of my possessions.
"Overflows happen all the time," explained Cathy Creech, customer service representative for North American. Would I be compensated in any way? "We're not liable for general inconvenience," she said.
General inconvenience? For the next day-and-a-half, while driving south, my wife and I monitored the status of our overflow by phone. And, although driver Ron Hughes had assured me that Nagle/Poor would be out early the next day to collect it, it took two days. This was unfortunate, because the sale of our Cleveland home had been completed before Hughes drove off. Thus, our possessions were being stored on someone else's property without their permission.
Having puzzled and worried the entire weekend, I spoke with North American several times on Monday about preparations for the delivery on Tuesday. Yet somehow, I was not told that the driver wouldn't empty his van unless I paid him upon arrival with cash or certified check.
Thus, I spent most of Tuesday morning arranging for the money to be wired into North American's account. However, his two-hour wait deadline having passed, Hughes was ready to leave.
With my possessions in the balance, I called North American's bank and verified the money had arrived. Hughes still wanted to leave. He stayed only after I gave his dispatcher the phone number for the company's bank, so that she could verify the payment herself.
Of course, Hughes wanted money as a result of his inconvenience. And after rebuffing attempts to collect cash beyond my "guaranteed not-to- exceed" bid first from the packers, then from Nagle-Poor, then from Hughes, I relented. By day's end, Hughes walked away with $373 in cash: $200 due to the delay, $53 in overtime pay for him and his helpers, and $84 because my home was 10 feet beyond the 75-foot maximum carry distance for workers unloading the van. North American had more than $6,000 in its bank account, and I had 97 percent of my possessions, according to their calculations. The crib and remaining possessions, originally scheduled to arrive by the following Monday, didn't hit town for another week.
Nancy Abernethy, the case worker in McCollum's Orlando office, told me that I actually was fortunate compared to other victims; everything arrived eventually. And, other than a scratched cabinet, there had been no damage.
While predicting that none of my problems would trigger any remedy under the new law, Abernethy bravely offered to take up my case and those of other constituents who had been wronged by movers.
What's more, she shared my dark view of the effects of deregulation on American life. "You name anything that's been deregulated and it costs three times as much," she said.
Recently, local and national television exposés have targeted the intransigent moving industry, and there are countless moving misadventure stories out there. It took a public outcry to trigger the original regulatory movement. Maybe public opinion will rise up and put the anti-lock brakes on this and other industries prone to rolling over consumers out for walks without their watchdogs.