A NEWS ANALYSIS
WASHINGTON — One year after Congress ripped the wheels off the cross border demonstration project citing primarily safety concerns, the United States and Mexico may or may not be close to coming up with a replacement program.
It all depends on what your definition of “very near” is.
In answer to a question by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, during a hearing March 4 concerning the 2011 DOT budget, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood said, "We are finalizing a plan. 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.''
The question that immediately comes to mind is where is the proposal on a new cross border program that LaHood supposedly sent to the White House last May? It’s anybody’s guess, and the people with the answers aren’t saying anything substantive.
Asked whether LaHood was referring March 4 to the plan he said he sent to the White House last May, a modified version of that plan or a different plan crafted during the past few weeks, a spokesperson for LaHood’s office said she could provide no details.
LaHood’s statement caps a year-long process in which any progress made toward a new replacement program was trumpeted from the rooftops by various Obama administration officials.
Yet, when that so-called progress never led to visible action toward a new program, those same officials often would say nothing of substance about what was really happening nor have they been able to answer key questions about events that are already public knowledge.
The DOT also hasn’t cleared up contradictions that have come to light recently because of comments made by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, including those made less than 24 hours before LaHood appeared before Murray’s subcommittee.
In a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the U.S. trade agency, Kirk said the tariffs imposed by Mexico in retaliation for the U.S. ending the cross border trucking program 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 Finance Committee at the end of a brief dialogue with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., whose state has been badly hurt by the tariffs.
He gave no hint that a new proposal might be forthcoming.
All through the process of coming up with a new program, the White House, which some believe has put the clamps on what the DOT can and cannot say about the issue, refers all questions about Mexican trucks back to the DOT.
Even Congress seems frustrated with the lack of forthcoming information.
“Over the past 11 months, administration officials have repeatedly expressed confidence that a resolution to the current dispute could be found that would fulfill our obligations to Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement,” a letter sent to LaHood and Kirk March 1 read.
The letter was signed by 56 lawmakers urging the Obama administration to quickly come up with a new program.
“President (Barack) Obama expressed his commitment to resolving the issue to Mexican President (Felipe) Calderon during their meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, in August 2009,” the letter continued. However, to date, the administration has not shared any of the principles or the parameters of a proposed plan.”
Meanwhile, Mexican government officials are willing to talk, and are frustrated with the slow progress.
And finally, U.S. exporters are suffering from tariffs imposed by the Mexican government as a result of the Congressional action, tariffs that likely would be withdrawn if a new cross-border program were implemented.
Early in 2007, then Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters announced the demonstration project would begin.
Shortly after the program was announced, the influential members of Congress — Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Rep. Peter DeFazio, D.-Ore. and Rep. James Oberstar, D.-Minn. — became champions for Congressional efforts to stop the program before it ever began.
They made two attempts legislatively.
One occurred in mid-2007 in the form of an amendment to an appropriations bill that then-President George W. Bush had little choice but to sign.
The bill prohibited the use of federal funds to “establish or implement” a cross-border program.
The DOT interpreted that language to apply to future programs and went right ahead with the project.
In September of 2007, Stagecoach Cartage and Distribution of El Paso, Texas, was given approval to operate in Mexico, and Transportes Olympic of Nuevo Leon was cleared to operate in the U.S., marking the start of a year-long cross border demonstration project that would allow U.S. trucking companies to operate in Mexico for the first time.
Dorgan again tried to stop the program in mid-2008, this time with language in a transportation bill that would prohibit federal funds for a cross border project — present or future — but the bill never made it to Bush’s desk before the 110th session of Congress ended.
Undaunted and with a Democratic administration now in place, Dorgan included similar language in the 2009 omnibus spending bill, and this time, he got his wish.
The early days of 2009
The ink from President Obama’s signature on the 2009 omnibus spending bill that ended the program wasn’t even dry when Obama announced that he had tasked LaHood with the responsibility of working with the U.S. Trade Representative and the State Department, along with leaders of Congress, to propose a new cross-border program that would “meet the legitimate concerns of Congress and our NAFTA commitments.”
Over the next few weeks, LaHood eventually made it known he met with some 30 members of Congress to discuss the issue.
There was also public acknowledgement of listening sessions LaHood held with various trucking industry stakeholders, including American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves, Jim Johnston, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, OOIDA Vice President Todd Spencer, Teamsters General President James Hoffa and representatives of several safety advocate organizations, including Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and Public Citizen.
In April, Obama met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Mexico.
A Mexican official said Calderon would urge Obama to come up with a new program soon.
White House officials said Obama would be “diligently working through” the issue