Tuesday, August 14, 2007

House of Reps was right to put brakes on Mexican trucks entering the U.S.

During the past year in Congress a battle has been raging, and its outcome could have far-reaching implications for our economy, our security and the safety of our nation’s highways and roadways.

This battle, over whether Congress will allow a controversial and dangerous plan to allow Mexico-domiciled trucking companies and truck drivers full access to our nation’s highways, has reached a critical point.

In February of this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a program that would allow Mexico-based motor carriers to drive unfettered on our nation’s highways as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.

Currently these trucks are only allowed within a restricted commercial zone, generally about 20 miles wide. The proposed pilot program, which will be overseen by the DOT, would allow fleets from 100 Mexican trucking companies unrestricted access throughout the United States.

Numerous advocacy groups have called upon DOT to take steps to ensure safety and security before allowing this program to go forward. The DOT has largely ignored these pleas and is moving full-speed ahead without adequately addressing the litany of well-founded concerns raised.

Fortunately, the U.S. House of Representatives recently took a major step to protect our economy and the security of our nation’s highways. The House passed HR3074, the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill for fiscal year 2008, with an amendment that will cut off funding for the Mexican truck program in the coming fiscal year.

But, the battle is far from over. The House and Senate must reconcile the two versions of the spending bill in Conference Committee, and the Senate version does not contain the provision cutting funding that was approved by the House.

The Conference Committee, which is usually comprised of senior members of the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over the bill, is a Byzantine, behind-closed- doors process where, if history is any judge, anything is possible.

As the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee who has responsibility for highway funding, Missouri’s senior senator, Kit Bond, will most certainly be in the driver’s seat as a member of the Conference Committee on HR3047. In the coming weeks, citizens and groups from across Missouri will be calling upon Sen. Bond as well as Sen. Claire McCaskill to support the House amendment.

If approved by the Conference Committee and signed by President Bush, this bill could put the brakes on allowing unsafe, unverified trucks and drivers the authority to operate throughout our country, at least temporarily. This would be a positive development for several reasons.

First, this program is bad for our small businesses as it will allow large corporate trucking companies to secure cheaper, less trained Mexican workers, displacing American drivers. Trucking represents a vital lifeline for our nation’s economy and is an important part of the small business sector that provides a tremendous number of jobs to our national economy. America has a vested interest in keeping highly trained, experienced, professional truckers on the road.

And, while the U.S. government continues to ratchet up safety and security regulations on companies and drivers, similar regulatory regimes are not enforced or simply do not exist in Mexico. This cross-border trucking program would make the lowest common denominator the norm in our industry and would essentially “insource” labor from Mexico to replace quality, hardworking American drivers.

If the pilot program moves forward, Mexican trucks would be able to drive a host of sealed containers up the fast lanes of the NAFTA corridor and make their first customs stop in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Once a Mexican truck has crossed the border, there will be little that can be done to keep track of that driver or determine what he is hauling.

Port and container security in Mexico is notoriously lax. By allowing these trucks into our stream of commerce we are essentially entrusting poorly trained, underpaid and often corrupt Mexican officials with the lives of our families and our children.

This reality should be deeply troubling to every family in America. U.S. borders should not be fully open to trucks from Mexico until our two safety and security regulatory systems are comparable and we have the ability to fully enforce U.S. laws.

In addition to serious security concerns, the Mexican truck program brings with it significant motorist safety concerns. Compared to the stringent rules we follow here, the enforcement of regulations concerning training and maintenance is virtually non-existent in Mexico. Allowing these trucks, which are too often poorly maintained and driven by untrained drivers, on our roadways would present a danger to all U.S. motorists.

It should be the duty of every lawmaker to keep good paying jobs in the United States, strengthen our borders, and protect our families from unnecessary risks on our highways. When Congress returns to work in September, we are putting our faith in Missouri’s senators to support the common-sense approach taken by the House and do all three.