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Mexican truck roadblock gives way to compromise

On Nov. 28, Congressional negotiators and the White House reached a deal they say addresses the safety demands of the trucking industry but will allow Mexican trucks to operate beyond the commercial zone. The border rule controversy, complicated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, had been the primary sticking point in the passing of a $60 billion bill funding the Department of Transportation.

“We are pleased that we have reached an agreement on Mexican trucks that retains the critical safety principles that are so important to the American people and to the seventy members of the United States Senate who supported them,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), a lead negotiator on the issue. Along with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), she co-sponsored an amendment passed by the Senate in August. The Murray-Shelby amendment called for tougher border rules than the White House proposed, drawing threat of veto and creating a deadlock. Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY) was also involved in the negotiations.

Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Phil Gramm (R-TX), who supported the administration’s stance, endorsed the compromise. The agreement also was endorsed by Rep. Martin Olav Sabo (D-MN), who sponsored the outright ban passed by the House earlier this year.

Here are some key provisions of the agreement

  • The agreement calls for scales and weigh-in-motion equipment to be immediately placed at five border ports of entry and five more within a year. (The original Murray-Shelby amendment called for fixed scales and weigh-in-motion equipment to be installed at every border point.)
  • The new agreement requires electronic verification of the license of every Mexican truckdriver crossing the border who is carrying high-risk cargo and verification of at least half of all other Mexican truckers every time they cross the border.
  • Mexican trucking firms are to be subjected to rigorous onsite inspections before their trucks are allowed access to American highways, and the agreement requires every Mexican truck to undergo a physical inspection every 90 days to operate in the United States.
  • Once Mexican trucks are allowed to operate in the United States, they will only be allowed to cross at those border crossings where inspectors are on duty and there is adequate capacity to conduct safety enforcement activities.
  • The agreement requires comprehensive safety examinations of Mexican trucking firms before they are granted conditional authority and allowed into the United States. These safety exams verify that Mexican trucking firms have a drug and alcohol-testing program, proof of insurance and drivers with clean driving records.
  • The agreement prohibits any Mexican trucking firm from operating in the United States until the Inspector General has conducted a thorough audit of the U.S. government’s ability to enforce strict safety standards on all Mexican trucks crossing the border. Importantly, the agreement further prohibits any Mexican trucking firm from operating in the United States until the Secretary of Transportation, after reviewing the I.G.’s audit, certifies in writing that the opening of the border will not present an unacceptable safety risk.

When will we see Mexican trucks operating beyond the commercial zone? Although the Bush administration wants to see it happen by the beginning of 2002, it’s not likely so soon, given the requirements DOT must meet. We’ll have more information in the February issue.

Politics as usual hinders stimulus bill

Legislation designed to stimulate the slowing American economy is having a rough time moving through Congress as ideological politics makes its first real return since Sept. 11. The idea for a stimulus package began as targeted relief to help those who have lost their jobs in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The idea then was developed by some in Congress into an expansion of the tax cuts passed earlier in the year. The theory behind that proposal is to stimulate more consumer spending and job creation that will help raise the entire economy.

The House of Representatives was the first to pass a stimulus bill, and it focused almost entirely on broad tax relief. The House would increase the tax cuts for individuals passed earlier in the year, reduce capital gains taxes for businesses, provide states with $9 billion they may spend at their discretion for general worker relief, and provide states $3 billion to help workers obtain health care coverage. This bill passed the House on Oct. 23. Unfortunately, proposals to increase the business meal tax deduction and the tax deductibility of health insurance for the self-employed, although originally proposed in the House stimulus package, did not make it into the final House bill.

The Senate still is debating what kind of legislation it wants to consider. The focus in the Senate is on two bills, a tax-cut proposal introduced by Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the finance committee, and an infrastructure spending bill proposed by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), chairman of the appropriations committee.

Sen. Baucus' bill would provide some of the individual tax cuts found in the House bill, about half of the business capital gains tax cuts as in the House bill, but increased funding of unemployment programs. Sen. Baucus would provide an additional 13 weeks of unemployment compensation with increased benefits, a 50 percent federal subsidy for the purchase of health insurance, and the expansion of Medicaid for displaced workers.

Some in the Senate would like to tie the tax bill together with the passage of Sen. Byrd's Homeland Security infrastructure spending bill. That bill would pump $15 billion of spending into road and infrastructure construction, and beefed up security measures at possible terrorist targets such as reservoirs, dams, airports and nuclear power plants. Critics of this proposal do not believe that such spending has much of an effect on the economy.

As time passes since Sept. 11 and the holidays approach, the feeling of urgency and bipartisanship is fading in Congress. The stimulus bill idea is becoming a victim of the return to ideological stances on taxing and spending. The airline security bill signed by the president in the week before Thanksgiving might be the last gasp of bipartisan cooperation before the end of the year. The need for a stimulus package does not have the same mandate from the American people, and it may be the new year before a compromise is found and such legislation is passed.

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