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The opening of U.S. highways to Mexican trucks suffers setback

In a surprising move, the House of Representatives voted June 26 to prohibit the Department of Transportation from registering Mexican motor carriers to operate beyond the 20-mile commercial zone in the border states. Led by Rep. Martin Sabo (D-MN), the House gave its approval to the measure by a vote of 285 to 143. (See how they voted on page 26.) This provision was an amendment to the transportation appropriations bill that approves how much money the DOT will receive for its various programs for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2001.

The Bush administration has announced its intention to open all U.S. highways to Mexican trucks by the end of 2001. To implement the Bush plan, DOT has proposed rules under which Mexican carriers would be required to register with the DOT before operating within the United States. The Sabo amendment would block the DOT from taking any action to grant Mexican trucks operating authority beyond the authority they currently enjoy.

The Sabo amendment was a stronger proposal than originally intended
Sabo did not intend to propose a total block on Mexican carriers. He and Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) originally proposed an amendment to require DOT to perform a safety review of Mexican carriers before they are allowed to operate in the United States. The proposed DOT rule would require a Mexican carrier to undergo a safety review some time in the first 18 months after beginning to operate in the United States. Rep. Sabo and other members of Congress criticize the DOT proposal allowing Mexican carriers on U.S. highways before they undergo any safety review.

The House leadership, however, refused to allow Reps. Sabo and Ney to offer this amendment. The House rules require that spending bills only decide where federal dollars should and should not be spent. It is against the rules for a spending bill to create new policy. The original Sabo-Ney amendment was deemed to propose a new policy and therefore was not allowed.

Determined not to give up on the issue, Rep. Sabo was left with little choice but to offer an amendment dealing with federal spending. Therefore, Sabo's new amendment was drafted to prohibit the DOT from spending money to implement its plan to allow Mexican carriers onto all U.S. highways. Both this amendment and the entire transportation appropriations bill passed the House overwhelmingly and have been sent to the Senate.

This block on Mexican trucks is not a done deal 
As frequent readers of "Washington Insider” know, passage of a bill by one body of Congress is only the first step toward becoming law. The transportation appropriations bill now faces Senate consideration. If the Senate passes a different bill than the House passes, then the two bodies must reconcile their differences in a "conference committee.” Both bodies of Congress then must pass the reconciled bill.

The Sabo amendment has the best chance of becoming law if next it is made a part of the Senate transportation appropriations bill. If the Senate passes a Sabo amendment just like the House, there will be no differences to reconcile, and it will be much harder for its opponents to change or knock it out of the bill in the conference committee.

The final threat to the Sabo amendment, however, is President Bush. He has expressed his wish to open the border to Mexican trucks. The president's spokesman expressed disappointment in the Sabo amendment and promised the White House would go to work against it. In the end, the president could decide to veto the entire transportation appropriations bill if it contains the Sabo amendment.

Congress may have a difficult time overriding this veto. It takes a two-thirds vote in both bodies of Congress to override a veto. Normally two-thirds of Congress equates to 290 House members and 67 Senators. The Sabo amendment passed with a healthy 285 votes, but that is five votes short of two-thirds. A great deal of support for the Sabo amendment must still be generated before it can become law.

The next step
In order for the Sabo amendment to become law, Congress needs to learn there is a great deal of support for the action the House has taken. Rep. Sabo only intended to require Mexican trucks to undergo a safety review before they are allowed to operate in the United States. In the debate on the amendment, Rep. Sabo stated he had no choice but to propose the total ban as a way of keeping the issue alive. He indicated he expects to work out the issue in the conference committee so that he gets at least a safety review of Mexican carriers.

What he and the other members of the House and Senate need to know is their constituents strongly support the total ban on Mexican trucks, and that they should pass nothing less. Here are the actions you can:

1) Review the list of representatives who voted for the Sabo amendment (printed on page 26 in this issue of Land Line). If your representative voted for the Sabo amendment, write them a letter or give them a call and thank them for their vote. If they voted against the Sabo amendment, tell them politely that you disagree with their vote. No matter how they voted, explain to them why you think it is important to keep Mexican trucks off our highways.

2) Call or write both of your senators and ask them to keep Mexican trucks out of the United States.

The overwhelming vote for the Sabo amendment in the House gave new hope and momentum to efforts to keep the border closed. It will be absolutely necessary to tell our elected officials we feel if we want to keep the border closed. Keep in mind that big business interests and the American Trucking Associations have vowed to fight against a closed border. They will win if members of Congress do not hear otherwise from their constituents. Telephone numbers for the House and Senate are listed on page 16.

Tax Relief bill signed into law
As reported in the "Tax Tips” column by Barry and Howard on page 44, the centerpiece of President George W. Bush's agenda, a tax relief bill, was signed into law June 7, 2001. As a result, many taxpayers will receive a rebate check from the Treasury Department between the end of July and the end of September. The tax bill, however, did not provide relief to small businesses.

Tax breaks for businesses are perceived by some congressional watchdog groups as favors for special interests. As a result, they can generate a great deal of opposition. To avoid this controversy, the president and Congress insisted the first tax bill focus primarily on tax relief for individuals and families.

This meant some popular tax relief proposals once again were put to the side. These include raising the tax deductibility of health insurance costs for the self employed and raising the business meal tax deduction. Both of these proposals have been included in numerous tax relief bills in the past several years.

With regard to the tax deductibility of health insurance costs, current law provides that for the taxable year 2001, a self-employed individual can deduct 60 percent of premiums for insuring him or herself, a spouse and dependents. That percentage will rise to 70 percent for 2002 and 100 percent for 2003 and thereafter. More than 50 different proposals have been introduced to Congress to accelerate this schedule to provide for 100 percent deductibility beginning this year.

The tax deductibility of business meals used to be 100 percent before 1987. Then it was cut to 80 percent. In 1994 it was cut again to 50 percent. At the time it was last cut, the business meal deduction was perceived as a benefit mostly to fat cats in big cities with big expense accounts. Since then, it has been better understood that a majority of the beneficiaries of this deduction are small-business people in smaller metro and rural areas. At least a half dozen bills in Congress have been introduced to raise the deductibility of business meal expenses.

The likelihood either of these tax reforms will be addressed this year is unclear. At the time the individual tax reform bill was being debated, congressional leaders stated that they would pass the tax reform for individuals this year and a tax relief bill

for businesses next year. Some ardent tax cutters, however, have promised to push more tax relief immediately.

The next opportunity for raising the deductibility of health insurance costs may be the pending patient rights legislation. Some members of Congress would like to include an increase in the deductibility of health insurance costs to this bill.

Additionally, these tax proposals may find a home in legislation to raise the minimum wage. Congressmen and congresswomen who make it a priority to represent business interests usually insist that any increase in the minimum wage must come with corresponding tax breaks for businesses. It is expected that a minimum wage bill will be considered by Congress this year.

Efforts to promote this tax relief, however, will face strong critics of the new tax relief law. These critics believe the tax cuts enacted were based on an over-optimistic projection of revenue for the next several years. The result, they say, is the government will not have enough revenue to meet its commitments. Therefore, they conclude, there is no way the United States can responsibly reduce its revenue with additional tax cuts.

These are the positions that will frame the debate on these tax proposals in the near future. Although these tax proposals continue to have strong supporters in Congress, their likelihood of passage remains uncertain.

For the House of Representatives
call: Capitol Switchboard (202) 225-3121
and write:
The Honoralbe (Your Rep.'s name)
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515

For the Senate
call: Capitol Switchboard (202) 224-3121
and write:
The Honorable (your Senator's name)
U.S. Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

And finally
Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-NM) has introduced a bill (S1150) that would prohibit toll collections on federal holidays. Smith believes his bill would make holiday travel faster and reduce air pollution produced by idling cars waiting in tollbooth lines. The federal government would be required to reimburse states for the lost revenue. As the ranking Republican on the Environmental and Public Works Committee, Sen. Smith has responsibility for environmental and federal highway issues. Sen. Smith is expected to face a challenge from within his own party next year in a primary for his Senate seat. This is due in part to his brief defection from the Republican Party last year.