Apparently, yes means no

When President Bush decided early in his administration that it was time to start opening the border to Mexican trucks, he met with a chilly reception on Capitol Hill. Even though the opening was contemplated by the North American Free Trade Agreement, Congress said no – at least not yet.

Instead, lawmakers used the fiscal 2002 Department of Transportation funding bill to lay out a series of 34 requirements and preconditions for Mexican carriers to operate beyond the U.S. commercial zones, including inspections of Mexican carriers, installation of inspection facilities and so on. Later appropriations acts have included the same detailed provisions, which also required the DOT Office of Inspector General to audit progress on the 34 requirements and to certify compliance before trucks could roll. Indeed, the OIG issued four audit reports between June 2002 and August 2007.

Legislation enacted in May followed Transportation Secretary Mary Peters’ announcement that DOT would conduct a one-year pilot program allowing Mexican trucks into the interior of the United States and U.S. trucks into Mexico for the first time. Congress imposed another round of hurdles and requirements and ordered still more OIG audits, including one that had to be issued before the pilot program could move forward.

In the end, the OIG found the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration still needed to address issues related to checking every truck under the pilot program as it enters the U.S.; ensuring that state enforcement officials know how to implement recent FMCSA guidance; and reconciling slight differences in FMCSA rules and policies on three of the 34 requirements. Peters addressed each of the OIG’s concerns in a letter to Congress on Sept. 6.

But before the OIG could even complete the audit as required by the May legislation, the House voted overwhelmingly to zero out funding for the pilot program as part of the DOT funding bill. Never mind the compromises, understandings and years of work. Legislators voted to simply flush all that down the drain. Within a few days of FMCSA’s Sept. 6 launch of the pilot program, the Senate likewise voted to kill it by an overwhelming margin. A final decision could be weeks or even days away.

“Every time we’ve answered one of our critic’s claims, their response has been, ‘That’s fine, let’s have them do something else,’ ” complains FMCSA Administrator John Hill. “We need to keep in mind that there is only a certain niche of this market that actually does international shipments. What we’re trying to do is make it more efficient. If you create more efficiency, what it’s going to do in the long term is it’s going to create more commerce and allow more freight to move over the border. Right now there’s a bottleneck at the border.”

Hill believes that even if Congress ultimately backs down, the controversy is taking a toll on the success of the one-year program. “We would like to see as many carriers participate as we can,” he says. “What we’re seeing is some reluctance on the part of both Mexican and U.S. carriers involved because of uncertainty.”

According to DOT, federal funding to prepare for the start of cross-border trucking totals about $500 million since 1994. That’s money to hire and train hundreds of inspectors, build dozens of facilities and implement procedures to check every Mexican truck and driver that participates in the program.

And it’s half a billion dollars that essentially will be wasted if Congress kills the pilot program at this stage. The limited cross-border operations that occur today might be safer, but that hardly justifies the investment. If Congress ultimately planned to say no anyway, it should have saved everyone the time, money and frustration and done so six years ago. For lawmakers to simply kill the program now is a serious abuse of their discretion.