Interstate Commerce Commission

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Interstate Commerce Commission

The first independent regulatory agency created by the federal government, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) regulated interstate surface transportation between 1887 and 1995. Over its 108-year history, the agency regulated and certified trains, trucks, buses, water carriers, freight forwarders, pipelines, and many other elements of interstate transportation.

The ICC was created by the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 (24 Stat. 379 [49 U.S.C.A. § 1 et seq.]). The act created a five-person commission—later expanded to seven and then to 11—to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Among the commission's first actions was the election of its first president, Thomas McIntyre Cooley, a noted legal scholar who had been nominated by President grover cleveland.

Congress established the ICC to control the powerful railroad industry, then plagued by monopolistic and unfair pricing practices that often discriminated against smaller railroads and businesses as well as individual consumers. In its early years, the agency's regulatory effectiveness was severely limited by the courts, which in many cases retained the ability to review ICC rate rulings. The agency lost 15 of its first 16 lawsuits against the railroads, and the Supreme Court issued several decisions that hampered its regulatory powers.

Later laws gave the agency's rulings more teeth. The Elkins Act of 1903 (32 Stat. 847) allowed the ICC to punish shippers who practiced unfair competitive methods. The Hepburn Act of 1906 (34 Stat. 584) gave the agency wider powers to regulate railroad rates, making its rulings binding without a court order. The act also assigned to the ICC the oversight of all pipelines other than gas and water.

Over the years, Congress changed the focus and tasks of the ICC, gradually expanding its regulatory powers. In 1893, it entrusted the agency with the regulation of railroad safety. Later, the Motor Carrier Act of 1935 (49 Stat. 543) gave the ICC authority to regulate interstate trucking and other highway transportation. The agency even regulated telephone and telegraph communication from 1888 until 1934, when this task was transferred to the Federal Communications Commission.

Other tasks performed by the ICC included conducting hearings to examine alleged abuses; authorizing mergers in the transportation industry; overseeing the movement of railroad traffic in certain areas; granting the right to operate railroads, trucking companies, bus lines, and water carriers; and maintaining Consumer Protection programs that ensured fair, nondiscriminatory rates and services. At times, the agency participated in important social and political changes, as when it desegregated interstate buses and trains in the 1960s.

By the 1960s, the ICC had reached a peak size of 2,400 employees, with field offices in 48 states. Its growth made it a target for those who sought to reduce the power and size of federal regulatory agencies. Critics claimed that ICC regulation created artificially high rates for many forms of transportation. Some charged the agency with corruption.

In 1976, the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act (90 Stat. 31 [45 U.S.C.A. § 801]) reduced the commission's powers to regulate carrier rates and practices except in a few areas where a single railroad or trucking firm monopolized a transportation route. This trend toward the deregulation of interstate commerce caused the ICC to gradually get smaller until December 29, 1995, when President bill clinton signed The ICC Termination Act, Pub. L.No. 104-88, 109 Stat. 803 (1995), dissolving the ICC.

In its final year, the ICC employed 300 people and had a budget of $40 million. The legislation ending its existence moved 200 former ICC employees to the Transportation Department, which assumed authority over former ICC functions deemed essential by Congress. These essential functions included approving railroad and bus mergers and handling railroad disputes. The new three-person Intermodal Surface Transportation Board within the Department of Transportation oversees many of the functions formerly conducted by the ICC.

Further readings

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Available online at <> (accessed July 28, 2003).

"Commerce: ICC Elimination." 1996. Congressional Quarterly's News (January 8).

Interstate Commerce Commission. 1979. Interstate Commerce Commission … in the Public Interest.

U.S. Government Manual Web site. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).


Carriers; Highway; Railroad; Shipping Law.

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