Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Senate’s decision this week to reject funding for a pilot program that would give Mexican trucks freer access to U.S. roadways is a shameful reneging of America’s responsibilities under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

It’s no surprise that Democrats acted this way, cowing to the interests of anti-trade labor unions afraid of competition. There is, however, a measure of disappointment that 25 Republicans crossed over to support Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, whose amendment to the Transportation Department funding bill killed the program and flew through the Senate with a veto-proof 75-23 margin. Ostensibly citing safety concerns, these Republicans rejected an alternative amendment offered by Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, that would have imposed stiff inspection standards, similar to the ones applied to U.S. and Canadian trucks, and required the Transportation Department’s Inspector General to certify the safety of every Mexican truck and driver entering our borders. A one-year pilot program supported by the White House would allow some 100 Mexican trucking lines access to U.S. highways. Freer trade is now stymied.

Critics hiding under a claim of safety concerns point to a trucking accident in Mexico last week that killed 37 persons and injured hundreds of others. This case is inapplicable, as the tractor-trailer involved was carrying hazardous materials, items that would not be allowed entry from Mexico under the NAFTA agreement.

We have long supported NAFTA — flaws and all — and safety standards is a legitimate concern. But nothing we say in support of allowing Mexican carriers entering our borders means we are less concerned about both tighter border security and stricter cargo inspections.

When the United States entered into NAFTA under President Clinton in 1993, it agreed to allow Mexican trucks entry into the United States by 1995. This aspect of NAFTA was temporarily halted when U.S. officials cited safety concerns that proved serious enough to stall the measure. Understandably, Mexico was flummoxed but cheered later when a NAFTA settlement panel sided against the United States for violating the agreement. Under the ruling, the White House has said Mexico, which is losing as much as $2 billion a year under this protectionist policy, has the right to retaliate in the form of tariffs on U.S. exports.

The administration has not done enough on our porous borders, but we still support NAFTA. We urge Congress to restore our legitimacy and credibility among our southern neighbors.

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