Congress, White House clash over Mexican trucks

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Congress has set the stage for a major showdown with president bush over Mexican trucks. In late June, the House voted to ban Mexican trucks from the U.S. interior until late 2002 at the earliest. At press time, the Senate was also debating tight restrictions on the entry of the trucks that could hold up their entry for just as long or longer. A compromise was in the works.

President Bush threatened a veto of the transportation appropriations bill – the vehicle for the Mexican truck ban – if the final version hammered out by House and Senate negotiators blocks his plan to open the country to Mexican trucks at the end of the year. The veto would apply, the White House said last month, if the final bill that reached his office contained either the House provision or the language adopted by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

It is not clear when the issue will be resolved. Congress will be out of session for the entire month of August, and the Mexican truck measures threaten to delay the Department of Transportation funding bill until the last days of the session. As a practical matter, an extended delay in enacting the DOT bill likely would postpone expanded access by Mexican trucks because the department wouldn’t have the funds it needs for border inspectors and inspection facilities.

Holding up the bill would be politically risky for both sides, however, as it would delay spending tens of billions of dollars of highway, airport, port, rail and other projects of importance to the administration and Congress.

The Bush administration had planned to grant Mexican carriers full access to the United States by Jan. 1, 2002. In June, however, the House voted 285-143 to support a surprise amendment by Martin Sabo, D-Minn., to eliminate funding for the processing of applications by Mexican carriers to operate beyond the U.S. municipalities and commercial zones adjacent to the U.S.-Mexico border. The House also deleted the $88 million the administration had budgeted for fiscal 2002 to hire the needed inspectors and safety investigators and build the needed additional border facilities.

After Bush threatened to veto that language, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a less stringent measure that would ban Mexican trucks from the interior of the United States until they complied with severe safety standards. Under the Senate measure, a Mexican carrier would have to undergo a safety audit before gaining a conditional operating certificate and another audit before receiving permanent operating authority. That was inserted to counter a proposal by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which wouldn’t require a comprehensive review of Mexican carriers until 18 months after they started operating under expanded authority.

The Senate Appropriations Committee measure requires FMCSA to ensure Mexican compliance with hours-of-service rules to the satisfaction of DOT’s inspector general (IG) before the border could be opened fully. The IG would also have to certify that data is available to verify Mexican carrier licenses and check carrier records; that there are enough inspectors on the border; that all border inspections stations have telephone systems, weigh-in-motion systems and fixed scales; and that Mexican drivers who lose their licenses can be prevented from obtaining another one fraudulently. The provision also requires that FMCSA finalize a number of safety rules mandated in 1999 before it allows Mexican trucks in the interior.

Some observers say the Senate Appropriations requirements, which were inserted into the DOT funding bill by transportation subcommittee leaders Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., could hold up the border opening for years. Murray and Shelby presented their language as a compromise the White House might support. They not only restored the $88 million eliminated by the House, but they also added another $15 million.

But on July 19, the White House declared that the president’s senior advisors would recommend a veto unless changes were made. The Bush administration, however, said it would support some strengthening of the safety enforcement regime modeled after California’s inspection program for long-haul Mexican truckers.

Six-step program
Department of Transportation Inspector General Kenneth Mead told a Senate panel July 18 that several specific steps are needed to ensure the safety of Mexican trucks and drivers operating in the United States. Mead’s office has issued three reports on border safety since 1998. Based on this work, Mead recommends:

  1. Placing inspectors at all commercial border crossings during all operating hours.
  2. Performing safety reviews before granting Mexican-domiciled carriers conditional authority to go into the interior of the United States and inspecting all long-haul vehicles and drivers before they enter and operate in the United States.
  3. Taking firm enforcement actions against carriers that do not comply with U.S. safety regulations and authorizing states to place vehicles out of service for operating beyond authority or without authority.
  4. Providing adequate facilities to conduct inspections and place unsafe vehicles out of service.
  5. Revising the recently issued proposed rulemakings on application procedures and a monitoring system to require safety reviews and physical inspections of trucks and drivers before they operate in the United States, and issuing the final rules.
  6. Conducting workshops and outreach sessions to provide information to potential applicants on U.S. procedures and safety regulations.