WASHINGTON — It was almost surreal.
Like a scene from the Wild, Wild West.
The two lady senators from the state of Washington loaded their shot guns with Mexican powder and took dead aim at the two men most closely affiliated with the process of coming up with a new cross border trucking program.
Hit ‘em right between the eyes, Annie Oakley style, but with the traditional Capitol Hill style of courtesy.
You know the drill.
We appreciate the work you are doing, honorable gentlemen, but where in the world is our new Mexico trucking program?
The first to feel the heat was U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, who was testifying March 3 before the Senate Finance Committee about the United States’ trade agenda.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked for a progress report on the development of a new program.
Kirk admitted that the tariffs imposed by Mexico in retaliation for the U.S. ending the original program last March had hurt the U.S. economy.
“It has not been a positive for our trade policy. We want to get it resolved,” Kirk told members of the Senate Finance Committee at a hearing on the U.S. 2010 trade agenda.
Cantwell noted that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated the dispute has cost the U.S. economy some $2.6 billion and 25,000 American jobs.
She noted, rightly so, that her home state had been hit particularly hard because of its agricultural industry.
Kirk thanked committee members for helping pass a 2010 appropriations bill that did not include language prohibiting a cross border program, and then said, “President Obama, as you know, has asked Secretary LaHood to help us move forward and work with Congressional leadership to come up with an acceptable program to get this resolved. It is having a very negative impact, particularly on our agricultural industries in Washington and Texas and we’d like to come up with an acceptable program to move forward.”
Kirk’s answer to Cantwell’s question about the administration’s plan to come up with a new cross border plan did not elicit any new news about the issue, nor did it give any hint of the new news that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood would provide less than 24 hours later.
LaHood was on the Hill testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development about the 2011 DOT budget when Sen. Patty Murray, D.-Wash., took aim.
“These tariffs were imposed on over 90 U.S. products, and they undermine the competitiveness of many agricultural products produced in Washington state,” she said. “If we’re not able to find a path forward with Mexico on this issue, these tariffs will send American jobs north to Canada as growers, processors and packers are forced to relocate — threatening the livelihood of many communities in Washington state.”
The always well-prepared LaHood, who’d spent the last hour responding the senator’s questions without hesitation, looked at Murray, then carefully and with some hesitation responded.
"We are finalizing a plan,” LaHood said. “The reason it is taking so long is there's a lot of moving parts.
"We are very near a proposal that will meet Congress' safety concerns."
Murray didn’t press LaHood about what “very near” meant, but she fired one more salvo.
“Mr. Secretary, I appreciate that,” she said, “and you and I have had this discussion; I know you’re working on it. This is critical to a number of our agricultural industries now in my state. Would you please tell the folks you’re talking to in the White House and others that we need to get this done?”
LaHood’s response was quick and to the point.
“I will,” he said.
Meanwhile, 56 lawmakers have sent a letter to Kirk and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood urging the Obama administration to resolve the nearly year-long dispute that started when Congress killed the program in the 2009 appropriations bill.
The first signatures on the letter sent to Kirk and LaHood are those of Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., who it was reported on thetrucker.com on Feb. 5 were in the process of drafting a letter calling for a resolution to the dispute and were preparing to ask colleagues to sign the letter.
The letter, delivered March 1, noted that the tariffs have had “a devastating impact on our local industries and area economies. Therefore, given the importance of this matter to our constituents, we urge you to immediately implement a plan of action to rectify this situation.”
A spokesperson for Kirk’s office said the U.S. Trade Office and the Department of Transportation were working on a response to the letter.
The lawmakers wrote that the current situation was unsustainable and untenable.
"Our constituents need help immediately and we implore you to work quickly to implement a solution that ensures safety and normalizes trade. Please communicate your plans for a solution so we are better able to understand the administration's strategy," the lawmakers said.
Congress terminated funding in the fiscal year 2009 omnibus appropriations bill for a pilot program that allowed trucks from Mexico into the U.S. to deliver loads beyond the commercial trade zone and trucks from the U.S. to do the same in Mexico.
Lyndon Finney of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at email@example.com.