Congress Needs a New Attitude
Sep 1, 2001 12:00 PM, By Charles E Wilson
IT'S SEPTEMBER, and that means members of Congress have returned from their summer break. They face a full plate of legislative activity in the coming weeks, including the contentious issue of whether or not to open the US-Mexico border as called for by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Prior to the summer break, members of the House of Representatives and Senate showed just how unstatesmanlike they can be by passing legislation clearly designed to be anti-trade and even anti-Latin America. We have to hope that they came to their senses while on vacation.
It just seems rather hypocritical that Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) and the other Democrat legislators who led the charge against NAFTA's trucking provisions are the same individuals who have railed loud and long that President George W Bush has hurt US prestige abroad by withdrawing US support from a number of treaties and proposed treaties. Apparently, trade treaties don't carry the same obligation as anti-US environmental schemes for these legislators.
Anyway, a showdown is brewing between the executive and legislative branches of government. The first move was made shortly after President Bush took office in January. He announced plans to honor the long-delayed part of NAFTA allowing Mexican trucks to operate throughout the United States. In turn, US trucks would gain access to the Mexican market. Under President Bush's proposal, the US-Mexico border would be opened on January 1, 2002.
Labor unions and other anti-trade groups immediately threw up a cry of protectionist alarm, claiming that Mexico would flood the United States with killer trucks. They painted a bigoted picture of thousands of illiterate Mexican peasants roaring down US interstates in dilapidated giant tractor-trailer rigs mowing down anyone who gets in their way.
Congressional Democrats (as well as some Republicans) swallowed the argument hook, line, and sinker. With a threat that there would be “blood on the highways” without action, members of the House of Representatives acted in June to withhold funding for the Department of Transportation to process Mexican carrier applications. The House provision also would kill funding for additional federal vehicle inspectors — certainly a safety-motivated move.
The Senate launched its attack on Mexican truckers in August by passing legislation that would erect a number of costly safety hurdles against Mexican truck fleets. This includes a requirement for foreign trucking companies to obtain US insurance.
President Bush seems to have been caught somewhat by surprise. He has announced that he will veto the $60.1-billion transportation appropriations bill if any of the anti-Mexico legislation is included. At this time, anti-Mexico forces in the Senate lack the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
The safety argument made in the House and Senate is bogus. The foes of Mexican truckers used faulty DOT figures showing that 4.5 million Mexican trucks crossed into the United States in 1999. The correct number was around 63,000, quite a difference.
Most of the vehicles cited for safety violations were shuttle tractors, moving trailers from one side of the border to the other. The US-Mexico border isn't the only place where this kind of equipment can be found. Just look at some of the trucks operating around US ports.
In addition, if safety was the real concern, the federal government and the state governments in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California should have already begun building new inspection facilities and hiring new inspectors. That's not happening.
Once the US-Mexico border is opened, there will be no flood of unsafe trucks into the United States. Mexican trucks will have to comply with existing US safety regulations.
Mexican trucking companies are as wary about operating in the United States as US carriers are about operating deep into Mexico. Many Mexican carriers say they will opt to stay with the interline agreements that are currently in place with US fleets.
Only Mexican carriers with the best equipment and best drivers are likely to take the step. It will be years before significant numbers of Mexican carriers apply for US authority, which means we have plenty of time to build an inspection infrastructure along the border.
These leading Mexican carriers already run modern fleets that are every bit on a par with vehicles in US fleets. In fact, it would be impossible to pick out the Mexican vehicles from other tractors parked at a truck stop.
The United States needs to uphold its obligations under NAFTA, and opening the border is part of it. We've waited too long already. A NAFTA arbitration panel has ruled against the United States on the trucking issue.
Congressional action is jeopardizing our relationship with Mexico, which has become one of our strongest trading partners. NAFTA has tripled commerce between Mexico and the United States in less than a decade. We've all benefited, including those narrow-minded Congressmen in the House and Senate. It's time to open the US-Mexico border and move forward.
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