One day after signing the $410 billion omnibus funding bill into law, along with provisions ending the Department of Transportation’s Mexican truck demonstration project, the Obama administration has announced intentions to restart the program as soon as possible.
Debbie Mesloh, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, told the Associated Press Obama has asked the office to work with Congress, the DOT, the State Department and Mexican officials to come up with legislation to create “a new trucking project that will meet the legitimate concerns” of Congress and the U.S. under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
The Obama administration’s determination to see Mexican long-haul rigs roll throughout the U.S. is a setback for labor unions, including the Teamsters, who supported Obama in the 2008 presidential election, in part on his promise to renegotiate NAFTA to preserve U.S. jobs.
The sharp policy reversal will also be a blow to many Democrats in Congress, including Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who fought hard for the past two years to stop the project out of concerns that Mexican trucks do not conform with U.S. safety regulations.
After Tuesday’s vote in the Senate to pass the funding bill with language ending the truck project, the Mexican government put immediate pressure on the Obama administration to reinstate approval for Mexican trucks to operate throughout the U.S.
“Mexico still believes that the United States’ noncompliance on this issue, more than 14 years overdue, is a violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement,” Mexican Embassy spokesman Ricardo Alday told the AP.
Alday insisted Mexico is willing to work with Congress and the U.S. “in finding a solution that honors its international obligation.”
The Mexican truck issue became rancorous over the past two years as Bush administration Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters fought off repeated efforts by Congress to confine Mexican trucks to a narrow 20-mile-wide commercial area north of the southern border.
WND reported that after the truck project began, an examination of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration database revealed hundreds of safety violations by Mexican long-haul rigs on U.S. roads.
The contention of opponents has been that Mexican trucks and truck drivers do not reliably meet U.S. standards.
As WND reported, in a contentious Senate hearing last March, Dorgan got Peters to admit that Mexican drivers were being designated at the border as “proficient in English” even though they could explain U.S. traffic signs only in Spanish.
In the tense hearing, Dorgan accused Peters of being “arrogant” and in reckless disregard of a congressional vote to stop the truck project by taking funds away.
As WND reported, opposition in the House was led by DeFazio, who in September 2007 accused the Bush administration of having a “stealth plan” to allow Mexican long-haul rigs on U.S. roads.
“This administration [of President George W. Bush] is hell-bent on opening our borders,” DeFazio then said, “but has failed to require that Mexican drivers and trucks meet the same safety and security standards as U.S. drivers and trucks.”
Previously, Peters had argued the wording of the Dorgan amendment did not prohibit the Transportation Department from stopping a Mexican truck project already under way, even if the measure prohibited DOT from starting any new project.
Despite strong congressional opposition, the Department of Transportation under President Bush had announced it planned in its final months to extend the truck project for another two years – an attempt to force the incoming Obama administration to comply.
Obama backtracking on NAFTA promises?
The administration’s determination to open the U.S. to Mexican trucks raises questions about whether Obama intends to fulfill campaign promises to renegotiate NAFTA to get provisions more favorable to American workers and jobs.
During the presidential campaign, top Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at the University of Chicago business school, stirred controversy after reporters learned he traveled to Canada to reassure Canadians that Obama’s harsh words about NAFTA were just campaign rhetoric.
In the Ohio and Pennsylvania Democratic Party primaries, Obama pledged to renegotiate NAFTA as part of his appeal to workers in the states that have lost manufacturing jobs under the free trade agreements negotiated by Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.
Now, Goolsbee has joined the Obama administration, having taken a leave of absence from the University of Chicago after Obama appointed him chief economist and staff director of the newly created Presidential Economic Recovery Advisory Board, chaired by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker.
Obama also appointed Goolsbee to the Council of Economic Advisors, or CEA, which is charged with assisting in the development of White House economic policy.
In his first trip to a foreign nation, Obama traveled to Canada, where he used a press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to backtrack on his promise to renegotiate NAFTA.
The London Guardian reported Obama’s comments in Canada “muddied his position” on NAFTA.
Obama responded to a question at the joint press conference with Harper saying, “Now is a time where we have to be very careful about any signs of protectionism.”
Translated, this meant that any renegotiation of NAFTA by the Obama administration might involve fine-tuning some of the side agreements, not renegotiating NAFTA itself in any fundamental way.
Then there was the issue of the “Buy American” provision inserted into the administration’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan.
Canada was concerned that the provision could hurt Canadian steel exports to the U.S., and the EU complained the provision was antithetical to the spirit of the Transatlantic Economic Council, which President Bush signed with the EU last April.
The Obama administration did not object when language was added to the economic stimulus bill to specify that the “Buy American” provision would be interpreted as buying American products if it was consistent with U.S. international trade obligations. That meant any free trade agreement would override the obligation.