Saturday, March 28, 2009


Anyone worried that, once in charge, Democrats wouldn’t be vigilant in protecting our southern border can relax. The grave threat of Mexican long-haul truckers has been shut down. With any luck, Mexicans will never have the temerity to attempt to deliver commercial goods into the United States again.

At least such is the fervid hope of the Teamsters, the fiercest adversary the Mexicans have faced since President James K. Polk sent Winfield Scott south in the Mexican-American War. The union can’t abide Mexican trucks because they represent competition, and so they must be blocked - legal obligations, economic rationality and diplomatic sense aside.

We agreed with Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 to open the border states to Mexican trucking by 1995 and the entire country by 2000. Otherwise a fairly stalwart free-trader, former President Bill Clinton never delivered on that obligation. A NAFTA panel in 2001 ruled that we were in the wrong. Given how sacrosanct Democrats consider treaties, this should have settled the matter - if it weren’t for the outsized power of the Teamsters.

Eighteen months ago, then-President Bush implemented a pilot program under which 100 Mexican trucks were operating in the United States. No sooner was it in place than Democrats set out to kill it, finally succeeding in the $410 billion omnibus spending bill. Already infamous for its 8,500 earmarks, the law now also has a shameful trade dispute to its name.

The stated ground for killing the pilot program is safety. Anti-trade politicians talk of Mexican trucks as if they were the Tripod fighting machines deployed by the Martians in “War of the Worlds.” The interstate highway system itself will be hard-pressed to survive their onslaught. Polk should have finished the job and annexed all of Mexico, just so we could have pre-empted this danger decades before the invention of the automobile.

The safety issue is a red herring. Despite a ban on them dating from the 1980s, 800 Mexican trucks were allowed to continue operating in the United States. “A survey by the Arizona Republic newspaper found that those Mexican trucks allowed to operate in the U.S. have a superior safety record compared with U.S.-owned trucks,” Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute writes. The Transportation Department also found no safety problem with the trucks here under the new pilot program.

The Teamsters simply want to protect their economic turf. The current arrangement is so comically Byzantine that it’s worthy of a Monty Python skit spoofing the irrationalities of feudal Europe. Mexican trucks carrying goods into the United States have to drop them in a commercial zone 20 miles within the U.S. border, where they’re eventually loaded back onto U.S. trucks and delivered to their destinations.

This creates extra jobs, but at the cost of some $200 million to $400 million a year in economic inefficiency. We’re lucky that rickshaw operators don’t have a union as powerful as the Teamsters or all the goods would have to be transported around the country under human power.

Our third-largest trading partner, the Mexicans have retaliated by saying they will impose tariffs on 90 U.S. industrial and agricultural products, worth $2.4 billion in 2007. So the cost of this “victory” against Mexican trucking will be borne by farmers and manufacturers around the country. The tit for tat is unlikely to escalate into a full-blown trade war, but we send a dreadful signal by violating a trade agreement at a time when protectionist pressures are rising worldwide.

President Obama says he’ll find a way to address Mexico’s complaint consistent with safety concerns. Since those concerns are a proxy for flat-out opposition to Mexican trucking, it’s not clear how that’s possible.

Democrats profess to love our allies - unless they want to trade with us. Mexico joins South Korea and Colombia among friends we are stiffing on trade. Perhaps if they got together and started an illicit nuclear-weapons program, they would be treated with more solicitude.

Rich Lowry is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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