In my June column (¿que pasa?), I wrote about the continuing effort by Congress and special interest groups to keep Mexican trucks off U.S. roads. Ordinarily, I wouldn't revisit a subject a few months later, but since Congress has chosen to do so, I will too.
I happened to be in Mexico City two days after the first Mexican truck—a tractor-trailer operated by Transportes Olympic—rolled across the border under a one-year pilot program that allowed a limited number of Mexican carriers to operate in the United States. The program, which was aimed at satisfying one of the last outstanding requirements of the North American Free Trade Agreement, gave approximately 500 previously inspected trucks from 100 Mexican carriers the right to travel on U.S. highways. The Mexican government, in turn, authorized a U.S. trucking company, Stagecoach Cartage and Distribution of El Paso, Texas, to move into Mexico's interior.
Although this was not the primary topic of my meetings in Mexico, the subject obviously came up. It was clear that the logisticians in the room were gratified to see that the program was finally going forward 13 years after NAFTA's passage. None of those in attendance voiced objections to the program's restrictions. They agreed that the United States had an obligation to keep unsafe equipment and unqualified drivers from entering the country, and that Mexico must do the same. They also felt the United States was justified in requiring Mexican trucks to comply with the same environmental regulations that apply to American trucks.
But their pleasure would be short lived. By the time my plane home had landed, Congress had once again bowed to the Teamsters, the Sierra Club, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, and who knows what other special interest groups. Just days after the program's launch, the Senate voted to eliminate funding for the one-year pilot project.
Though the House had yet to act on the measure at press time, it was clear that the same sentiments prevailed there. In May, the House had passed a bill called the Safe American Roads Act of 2007, which was also aimed at impeding highway commerce with our third-largest trading partner. (Through July, this year's trade with Mexico was almost $200 billion and was on track to surpass 2006 figures.) Among other things, the legislation would restrict the number of carriers allowed into the United States and set additional verification, inspection, and qualification measures.
As you might expect, the vote wasn't even close—what politician would dare oppose a bill with a title like the Safe American Roads Act? I'm confident it was supported by any number of legislators who didn't know a Mexican truck from a piñata.
I like to think I'm not politically naïve, but this continuing saga raises some questions in my mind:
1. Could this simply be a knee-jerk reaction to congressional concerns about illegal immigrants?
2. Why aren't the Teamsters concerned about Canadian drivers? Could it be that they are so well paid that they're not seen as a threat?
3. What happened to the driver shortage? Whose jobs are the Mexican drivers going to take?
Even The New York Times, which seems to believe that everything the current administration does was spawned by the devil, criticized this latest congressional move. An editorial in the paper's Sept. 11 edition said it well: "Guaranteeing highway safety does not require undermining the nation's free trade agreements or its relationship with Mexico."
Certainly, we should all support safe highways and a clean environment. But we also should support common sense when dealing with a country as important to us as Mexico.