50 Years Ago Today: President Johnson Signs Bills Creating NHTSA

September 9, 2016

Fifty years ago today, on September 9, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law two bills that, when combined, created what is now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Safety on the nation’s roads had been one of the three pillars of the President’s March 1966 transportation message to Congress (the other two pillars were creation of a Department of Transportation and administrative reform of the Interstate Commerce Commission).

However, unlike the DOT proposal (which fit neatly into a single committee’s jurisdiction in each chamber), the President’s proposals for highway safety fell across split jurisdictional lines in Congress. Safety standards for cars and trucks produced by manufacturers was under the Commerce committees (and financed from the general fund), but making roads themselves safer was subject to the Public Works committees (and financed from the Highway Trust Fund).

Accordingly, the President’s safety proposal was split in two. The original bills drafted and moved through the House and Senate created two different bureaus within the Department of Commerce, one for vehicle safety and one for highway safety. But while Congress was debating these bills in summer 1966, it was also debating the creation of a Department of Transportation which might take over these bureaus from Commerce.

In the end, Congress passed two conference reports – on the Commerce bill (S. 3005, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966) and on the Public Works bill (S. 3052, the Highway Safety Act of 1966). Section 201 of the Public Works bill authorized the President to combine the two agencies into one: “The President is authorized to carry out the provisions of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 through the Agency and Administrator authorized by this section.”

But that led to another issue – the “subsequent enactment” statutory construction doctrine. The Attorney General advised President Johnson that he had to sign the Commerce bill before he signed the Public Works bill so that the precedent set by section 201 of the Public Works bill could not be questioned in court – and suggested that the President write the time of signature on each bill. (He signed S. 3005 at 1:10 p.m. and S. 3052 at 1:11 p.m.)

The text of the two laws and the White House enrolled bill files (Bureau of the Budget memos summarizing each bill, and the views of Cabinet agencies on the legislation) are here:

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