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Victory, so far, in keeping unsafe Mexican trucks out of the country

In the final days before Congress’ August recess, members of the Senate battled over the conditions under which Mexican trucks would be allowed into the country. On one side of the debate was Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) who proposed a set of comprehensive conditions that Mexican trucks and the U.S. Department of Transportation would have to meet before more Mexican trucks are allowed into the country. The Murray/Shelby amendment was a part of the DOT’s appropriations bill, the bill that approves how many dollars the federal government will spend on transportation programs.

On the other side of the issue was Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) who argued that the safety concerns about Mexican trucks are a ruse by anti-NAFTA groups to keep the border closed. They argued that although the safety of Mexican trucks is important, Mexican trucks crossing the border now are better maintained than U.S. trucks. They stressed that it is vitally important that the United States keeps the “solemn” promises it made to Mexico and Canada in the North American Free Trade Agreement. One of those promises was to open our highways to Mexican trucks.

The stage was set for this fight by the House of Representatives, which passed an amendment by Rep. Martin Sabo (D-MN) to the DOT appropriations bill to impose a one year ban on the DOT from registering any Mexican motor carriers to operate within the United States. The Sabo amendment drew a veto threat from the White House. President George W. Bush has proposed that the border be open by the end of 2001. The Murray/Shelby amendment was an effort to compromise by proposing that Mexican trucks would be allowed into the country, but only if several conditions were met to ensure their safety. Now, lawmakers from both chambers must meet in a conference committee to iron out the differences between the two bills. The Bush administration has said it also objects to the Murray/Shelby bill, saying it puts too many conditions on opening the border.

Legislation controlling the entry of Mexican trucks passed in large part because of the grassroots efforts of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. This effort began this spring when more than 5,000 people at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, KY, signed petitions and letters to their elected officials in Washington expressing their concern for the border opening proposal. When this issue was raised in the appropriations process, OOIDA generated thousands of telephone calls to Congress from its members asking their elected officials, to first, support the Sabo amendment, and then second, to support the Murray/Shelby amendment. This effort united thousands of OOIDA members behind one issue and showed the Senate that real people are concerned with this issue. This was the only way to counter the lobbying efforts of the big businesses that profit from NAFTA and would like a speedy opening of the border.

Under the NAFTA agreement, Mexican trucks that come into the United States are required to obey and comply with all U.S. laws and regulations. The problem with opening the border is two-fold. First, Mexico does not impose the same safety standards that the United States imposes on its own trucks. For this reason, few Mexican trucks comply with our safety standards when they cross the border. Second, the U.S. government is not at all prepared to make sure Mexican trucks coming into the United States comply with our safety laws. There are very few inspection facilities relative to the thousands of Mexican trucks that already come across the border. This second problem is the focus of the Murray/Shelby amendment.

The requirements of the Murray/Shelby amendment
The Murray/Shelby amendment would require the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to perform an on-site carrier review of a Mexican carrier, give the carrier a satisfactory safety rating, and give the carrier a DOT number. The FMCSA also must perform a “Level One” inspection of all Mexican trucks that want to travel in the United States beyond the 20-mile commercial zones on the border. Each Mexican truck that passes inspection shall be given a Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) decal that expires in 90 days. All Mexican carriers must carry insurance by an insurance company licensed and based in the United States.

All state inspectors who detect violations of federal motor carrier safety law would have to enforce the law or notify federal authorities of the violations. All border crossings must be equipped with both weigh-in-motion scales and fixed scales so every vehicle entering the United States is weighed.

Furthermore, the FMCSA must create new regulations that 1) establish minimum requirements for new motor carriers (including foreign carriers) to ensure their knowledge of safety rules; 2) improve the training of and provide certification for motor carrier safety auditors; 3) establish standards for determining the appropriate number of federal and state inspectors on the Mexican border; 4) prohibit foreign motor carriers from leasing vehicles to another carrier while the lessor is subject to a suspension, restriction or limitation on its right to operate in the United States; 5) prohibit foreign motor carriers from operating in the United States that have been found to have operated illegally in the United States, and 6) prohibit a Mexican carrier from entering the United States at a crossing point unless an inspector is on duty.

The Murray/Shelby amendment also requires the new enforcement effort to meet with the approval of the DOT’s Inspector General, a strong critic of current U.S. border enforcement efforts. The opening of the border is conditional on the Inspector General certifying in writing that 1) all new border inspector positions funded by the bill are filled by fully trained inspectors; 2) Mexico has put in place an adequate information system that is accessible at all U.S. border crossings so that enforcement personnel can easily and quickly verify the status and validity of licenses, vehicle registrations, operating authority and insurance of Mexican motor carriers; 3) there is a database put in place in the United States to monitor Mexican carrier operating authority and safety compliance; and 4) that there are adequate facilities at each border crossing to perform a meaningful number of vehicle inspections.

Will the Sabo amendment or the Murray/Shelby amendment become law?
The conditions contained in the Murray/Shelby amendment for opening the highways to Mexican trucks are the most thorough and realistic federal proposals to address the safety concerns raised by the opening of the border. With President Bush’s threatened veto of the Murray/Shelby amendment, however, it is unclear what kind of bill will come out of the conference committee.

Usually in the conference committee, the House and Senate find a compromise between their differences. (Both the House and Senate have to pass the same exact bill before it is sent to the president for his signature.) With the veto threat, however, they either can compromise with the president and pass a bill that they know he will sign, or they can pass one strong version of the bill and dare the president to veto it and suffer the political consequences. If the president vetoes the bill, it still can become law if both houses of Congress override the veto by passing the bill with a two-thirds majority. The Sabo amendment originally passed, but fell five votes short of a two-thirds majority. The Senate bill passed by voice vote and so we did not have the opportunity to see how a roll call vote would have ended.

The worst-case scenario is that a compromise will not be found and a bare-bones appropriations bill will be passed without any border provisions. The best-case scenario is that some modified version of the Murray/Shelby amendment will be agreed to by the House and Senate and signed into law by President Bush. If the latter is to occur, it will be because concerned truckers and their friends and family continue to send letters and place phone calls with the message to their elected officials that the border should be closed until tough rules, such as those in the Murray/Shelby amendment, are passed into law.

Correction: In the August/September issue, page 16 ("Washington Insider") Sen. Robert C. Smith was incorrectly listed as a Republican from New Mexico. Smith should have been listed as a representative of the state of New Hampshire.

Aug/Sept Digital Edition