A compromise between a Congress wanting to crack down on truck safety and increase security at border crossings and an administration wanting to help a key ally with freer movement of trade goods saved a transportation spending bill from certain veto.
The House version of the spending bill, which covers Department of Transportation spending for fiscal year 2002, contained language preventing the DOT from opening the country’s southern border to Mexican truckers beyond existing commercial zones. Those zones typically extend 10 to 20 miles out from the border. The Senate’s version did not contain an outright ban, but did impose strict safety rules that were more stringent than those proposed by the Bush administration.
The administration had repeatedly said the president would veto any funding bill that closed the border to Mexican truck traffic, a closure prohibited by the North American Free Trade Agreement signed in 1993. The Bush administration’s plans for opening the border called for allowing in Mexican truckers who say they meet U.S. safety requirements and then verifying within 18 months that they meet those standards.
That plan was too hands-off for a majority of Congress to accept, Todd Webster, communications director for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), told Truckers News. “The administration wanted to let Mexican truckers on U.S. roads and highways and then inspect them within a year and a half afterward, a very sort of laissez-faire approach,” Webster said. On the other hand, language in the House bill “took a much more strict view, essentially saying they would not let in Mexican trucks nor appropriate the money the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration needed to inspect the trucks.
“Sen. Murray came along with Sen. Shelby and said, ‘Let’s come up with a commonsense compromise,'” Webster said. Their proposal was to first inspect the trucks and drivers, and then let them in. The Senate unanimously passed their version of the transportation appropriations bill on Aug. 1. Webster noted there were “several 70-30 votes showing healthy support for the original Murray-Shelby compromise,” which indicated the Senate had a veto-proof majority backing a stricter plan on Mexican trucks than the one offered by the administration.
Just before Thanksgiving, Murray and Shelby sent a letter to their House counterpart, Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), outlining five further revisions to the original Murray-Shelby proposal the senators hoped would pass muster with the administration. “Those revisions were to hopefully avoid a presidential veto,” Webster said.
On Nov. 30, the House approved the revised provisions, setting the stage for both houses to begin working out other smaller differences between their respective transportation spending bills. The Senate was expected to approve the changes the first week of December, and the president was expected to sign the bill into law. In a statement, Bush called the compromise “an important victory for safety and free trade.”
The Murray-Shelby revisions call for the following:
- Driver and vehicle inspections for Mexican truckers every 90 days.
- Special scales at the 10 busiest border crossings for weighing moving trucks. The original Senate bill had required the scales at all border crossings.
- Allowing the Department of Transportation to create specific safety rules for Mexican trucks without going through a lengthy public hearing process.
- Allowing vehicle insurance companies to just be licensed in the United States rather than requiring them to also be based in the United States.
Observers say the stricter rules for Mexican trucks will delay their access to U.S. roads outside existing border zones. A DOT spokesman told the Associated Press it could take several months before Mexican truckers are allowed access, while others have said the delay might be less.
According to Webster, Sen. Murray’s concerns about the safety of Mexican trucks were based on a number of issues. “I think the fact there are no alcohol and drug testing policies in place in Mexico, no hours-of-service policies and there is no national database of driver’s licenses in Mexico. There were a number of concerns that she and 70 other of her colleagues in the Senate had and people like AAA of Texas had and other highway safety groups had.”
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association opposed opening the border to Mexican trucks on safety and other grounds, but in a statement released Nov. 27, OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer called the compromise “the most realistic set of protections yet offered to address the safety and security issues raised by opening the border.”