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Keep On Truckin'
Big Labor's dishonest war on Nafta.

Thursday, August 9, 2001 12:01 a.m.

Big Labor may never acknowledge as much, but the North American Free Trade Agreement has been good for America every which way--more jobs, higher wages, increased exports, improved environmental standards. Even so, one of the biggest fights in Congress before it adjourned was over whether Mexican trucks should be let into the U.S. The Bush administration insists it's necessary to comply with Nafta, but the House and Senate voted to block it.

Admittedly, a Mexican truck dispute isn't likely to jolt Americans from their midsummer ennui, especially when it must compete for attention with, among other things, a missing intern, an ex-president's record book deal, and a close National League pennant race.

Still, the issue warrants notice. How we settle this free-trade matter with our second-largest trading partner--and primary source of immigrant labor--is important. And the debate thus far has been instructive. For the Bush administration, there's a lesson in the high costs of being caught unawares by opponents; for the public, the debate shows how far removed facts can become from unchecked political agendas.

To the extent that people outside the Beltway have followed this trade issue at all, they've been led to believe that it's all about "road safety," the argument being that Mexican trucks fail inspections at high rates and therefore would imperil U.S. highways. The holes in this argument can accommodate semis, but that hasn't stopped it from becoming the basis of a campaign against Mexican trade orchestrated by the Teamsters Union and the Democrats.

The Bush administration is not blameless. Though it has the law and the facts on its side, the White House response has been, as one Hill insider puts it, "a day late and a dollar short."

The truck dispute is as old as Nafta, which stipulates that the U.S. open its roads to Mexican and Canadian rigs. Back in 1995, and in violation of our treaty obligations, President Clinton, at the behest of the Teamsters, unilaterally imposed restrictions on Mexican trucks, confining them to stateside areas within 20 miles of the Mexican border. In a naked and shameful (and costly and inefficient) display of protectionism, Mexican goods traveling farther than this arbitrary zone must first be loaded onto unionized American trucks.

President Bush's vow to end this nonsense predictably galvanized organized labor. In June, the Teamsters persuaded a large majority of the House of Representatives to tuck Mexico-specific antitrade measures into the $60 billion transportation appropriation. "Safety" concerns steered the floor debate. "This is a serious safety issue coming to highways all across America," said Rep. Martin Frost (D., Texas). "There's going to be blood on the highway," warned Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio. "Nafta is a trade pact," said Rep. David Obey (D., Wis.) "It's not a suicide pact." The bill passed.

In the Senate, the Teamsters pushed their crude protectionism through a willing Patty Murray (D., Wash.), who echoed the House's safety hysterics during Senate debate and on the nation's op-ed pages. Again, the bill passed.

The White House says it's had other priorities of late--education and patients' rights--and readily admits that the transportation votes caught it off-guard. Mr. Bush has promised to veto the legislation if the truck restrictions aren't addressed, and he should. But if the administration is looking for tools of persuasion--i.e., facts--that would go toward countering Big Labor's disingenuousness and avoiding a veto, help came last week from an unlikely source: The New York Times.

So thoroughly did a front-page Times article repudiate the "safety" canard that a Democrat could be forgiven for suspecting that the White House has a mole on the Times's reporting staff. Indeed, by laying out some simple truths, the investigative article has done the public a service and the administration a favor. Mr. Bush would be wise to find a way to disseminate this information, even if it means resorting to his under-used bully pulpit.

As the Times reported, the Mexican truck issue, properly understood, has nothing to do with "blood on the highway." Inspection-failure rates, the thread from which the "safety" argument hangs heavily, are meaningless without context. "In Mexico, as in the United States," said the Times, "there are two trucking businesses, long-haul companies that use newer, better-maintained vehicles, and short-haulers with more aged fleets that need to travel just short distances."

Mexico sends older trucks on routes that cross into the U.S. because, thanks to the 20-mile limit, these are by design shorter trips. So it follows that these particular trucks would fail inspections at higher rates. Opponents have portrayed the failure rates of Mexican short-haul rigs as representative of all Mexican trucks. Teamsters President James Hoffa told a Senate hearing last month that inspectors found 36% of Mexican trucks in the U.S to be defective.

To appreciate how misleading this figure is, it helps to know two things. First, American truck companies also send their worst trucks on the shortest routes. And second, if Missouri is representative, U.S. short-haulers fail inspections at a rate of around 45%, which means Mexicans have more reason to fear comparable U.S. trucks on their highways than the reverse.

Sen. Phil Gramm (R., Texas) said in an interview that there are other inconsistencies in opponents' "safety" arguments. For instance, the trend these days in trucking is leasing. "People increasingly don't own trucks; they lease them," said the senator. "And Mexicans with full access to our highways will lease trucks from the same companies as the U.S. They'll be driving the same trucks we do." To suggest that "the Mexican trucks now transporting turnips and cantaloupe across the border will be the same ones used for interstate commerce is just ludicrous," he says.

Though the Senate has voted on the bill, procedural votes must take place before it goes to a House-Senate conference for tweaking. Sen. Gramm, along with fellow Republican John McCain of Arizona, is promising a fight on the White House's behalf following the summer recess. "The whole thing came out of nowhere in the House," says Mr. Gramm, "and it's easy to vote against rickety trucks. People are concerned about truck safety, but nobody was paying much attention to the facts."
Mr. Riley is a senior editorial page writer at The Wall Street Journal.

Copyright 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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