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Common sense prevails in border debate

U.S. lawmakers in the House of Representatives restored my faith in our form of government in late June when they (in essence) voted against opening the border with Mexico for trucks from that country to operate throughout the United States.

By a wide margin (285 to 143), U.S. House members voted to adopt an amendment offered by Minnesota Rep. Martin Sabo that would cut off funding to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for processing applications for authority submitted by carriers based in Mexico. A vote to cut off funding has the effect of stopping the authority process right in its tracks. This was the same technique lawmakers used last year to send the appropriate message to FMCSA on proposed changes to the hours-of-service rules.

The vote in the House was even more impressive because 82 Republican members voted to keep the border closed. Too often over the past six years, the border issue has been inaccurately characterized along political party lines with Democrats siding with organized labor in opposing the border opening while Republicans side with big business in wanting it to open. Truth is, the real issues with NAFTA and trucks from Mexico have seldom been mentioned outside the trucking press – and not even enough there.

First off, trucks and trucking were never a key ingredient of NAFTA. Trucking wasn't even discussed beyond a general consensus that trucking regs would be harmonized – whatever that means. During the initial NAFTA discussions, Mexico wanted no part of international trucking and the overwhelming majority of Mexican truckers today want no part of international trucking. The only reason cross-border trucking is part of the agreement now is that a relative handful of U.S. carriers and other economic interest groups saw an economic advantage for themselves with Mexican trucks in the United States. NAFTA went into effect in 1994 and even if the border never opens more than it is now, the treaty will still be in place and in effect.

House lawmakers were right to look beyond the free trade rhetoric, and they should be applauded for their vote to go slow on opening the border. I can't think of a single federal or state agency that could effectively enforce U.S. law if the border was opened today. Only in California is there even the slightest hope of having an adequate enforcement inspection presence to say that most vehicles crossing the border would not cross with major equipment defects. And that's just vehicles, not drivers, and it's based on current volumes of trucks, not increased volumes as we are sure to see with an open border.

While there have been plenty of NAFTA-related activities at the state and federal level over the past six or seven years, the inspection program in California pretty well sums up the actual accomplishments to date on the U.S. side of the border. While the FMCSA has begun collecting information about Mexican CDL holders and carriers, without cooperation and compatible systems in actual operation in Mexico, the FMCSA data collected is of little value. Those systems and the corresponding cooperation, as yet, don't exist in Mexico. Several years ago, U.S. taxpayers picked up the tab to train some 4,000 Mexicans as inspectors, yet to my knowledge, not a single Mexican truck has ever been inspected.

Through their actions, Mexican officials have demonstrated time and again that they are not ready for the border to open. And they may not be ready for a long time. The same is true on the U.S. side, too many officials at all levels of government have opted to simply look the other way.

Fact is, we do not have the ability to determine if trucks from Mexico are safe. Neither the states nor the feds have any assurance that taxes will be collected for using U.S. highways. There has never been any serious discussion about how (or who) will enforce U.S. laws on immigration or cabotage – and given the serious shortcomings of the truck safety effort, it's difficult for me to imagine that issues beyond safety will ever make it on the radar screen unless U.S. lawmakers insist on it.

Make certain your U.S. senators know how you feel about opening the border with Mexico – and that you are counting on them to look after the interests of U.S. citizens.