By Paul Magnusson A panel of five arbiters has offered George W. Bush a chance to make good on a campaign promise, show Mexico the U.S. can be a reliable trading partner, and at the same time, reassert leadership in the effort to liberalize trade. It's a chance the Clinton Administration bungled for five years.
Bush's opportunity arises from the unanimous panel decision, handed down on Feb. 7, that the U.S. discriminated against Mexican trucking companies by refusing to even consider their legitimate applications to operate in the U.S. Provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement opened the border to Mexican 18-wheelers, beginning in 1996.
But the Clinton Administration, in a transparent attempt to curry favor with the U.S. Brotherhood of Teamsters, refused to implement NAFTA's trucking provisions. The union responded with campaign cash, volunteers, and an endorsement for Al Gore's Presidential run. Mexican trucks were restricted to small areas of four border states, where they've been required to transfer their loads to U.S. vehicles -- an expensive, highly inefficient distribution procedure. By contrast, long-haul trucks from Canada -- the third NAFTA partner -- are allowed easy entry into the U.S.
SAME STANDARDS. The Clinton ban was bad policy from the get-go and caused hard feelings between the U.S. and Mexico. It also fostered the suspicion among developing nations that the U.S. favors free trade only when powerful U.S. interests aren't subjected to competition. Now, President Bush, who as governor of Texas supported the original NAFTA trucking provisions, can finally implement one of the trade pact's last unrealized goals. White House aides say they'll follow through. And Bush would be wise to raise the issue when he visits Mexican President Vicente Fox in a few weeks.
By carefully acting on the decision, the Bush Administration can demonstrate that freeing trade needn't mean trashing the environment or lowering safety standards. Contrary to warnings from NAFTA opponents, the panel's decision doesn't mean the U.S. has to accept unsafe trucks, exhausted drivers, dangerous loads, or increased illegal drug shipments. The ruling explicitly preserves the right of the U.S. to impose its own safety regulations on Mexican vehicles, so trucks from across the border can be held to the same standards and inspections as 18-wheelers from this country. Mexican drivers can even be required to meet the same licensing and performance standards as U.S. drivers.
No one argues that such inspections and licensing will be easy to implement. On average, Mexican trucks are about 15 years old, vs. 5 years old for U.S. 18-wheelers. Inspection facilities in Texas and Arizona, the entry point for 80% of Mexican trucks, are grossly inadequate, according to the U.S. Transportation Dept. Fewer than 1% of Mexican trucks are inspected, and 35% of them are found to violate regulations. That's far too many.
SAFE AND CLEAN. But Mexican authorities argue that the high failure rate in the four border states results from the use of older "drayage" tractors in semi-retirement that are just driving a short distance over the border to drop off loads and return. They note that Mexican trucks illegally traveling north that are eventually caught and inspected actually have lower failure rates than U.S. long-haulers.
Yes, the U.S. will have to commit even more money and manpower to monitoring U.S., Canadian, and Mexican trucks, since overall traffic safety enforcement in this country is generally recognized as inadequate.
Also, Mexico should have to implement and enforce strict limits on the hours its drivers can spend behind the wheel without resting as well as vehicle safety standards equivalent to those in the U.S. After all, not every truck can be inspected.
But the answer isn't to simply ignore trade agreements because implementation is difficult. Nor is it right to ban trucks because they happen to be from Mexico. Rather, the Administration should institute better vehicle inspection and driver monitoring for all trucks on U.S. roads -- whatever their nationality. If President Bush does that, he'll have kept his campaign promise. He also will have kept faith with U.S. trading partners and consumers in a way Clinton never did. Magnusson covers trade for BusinessWeek in Washington