A cautionary tale for Congress on Mexico, unions, trucks and farming

By:  Ken Robertson
Folks who are thinking Congress might be able to cure our national budget ills might want to rethink any sense of optimism they’ve let creep into the space they usually reserve for skepticism.

To support that statement, I offer as evidence a congressional decision made two years ago that has cost U.S. farmers, ranchers and growers about $500 million.

Acting on truckers’ union fears and the anti-Mexico sentiments always rampant in Congress, senators and representatives in 2009 killed funding for a pilot program that would have allowed a paltry 100 Mexican trucks onto U.S. highways.

The stated concern was that the Mexican trucks would be unsafe, even though they would have had to be inspected.

Anyway, this U.S. violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement prompted Mexico to slap $2.4 billion in punitive tariffs on pork, cosmetics, Christmas trees, chemicals, pet food and hundreds of other products, including Washington’s iconic apples and potatoes.

Washington’s Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, who usually don’t agree on much, agreed banning the Mexican trucks was a terrible decision, and all three have worked to force changes.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, in announcing a preliminary deal to end the tariffs, on Thursday told The Dallas Morning News the economic effects have been severe.

“We had farmers, ranchers, growers from Texas, California, Florida to Washington who were getting hit by $250 million a year in tariffs,” Kirk said. “We’ve had extraordinary loss of market share in Mexico.”

Under the new deal, Mexican trucks would be subject to U.S. safety and pollution standards. Drivers would have to obey U.S. work rules and pass drug and English-proficiency tests.

Hastings said Thursday’s announcement falls short of what the Mid-Columbia’s agriculture-based economy desperately needs.

“This administration has had almost two years to resolve this issue .... Washington state growers and processors simply cannot afford any more delays,” he said in a statement.

Cantwell called the agreement a major step toward removing a crushing burden on Washington farmers.

The Teamsters remain adamantly opposed. Union President Jim Hoffa charged the agreement “caves in to business interests.”

And a group representing 152,000 independent truckers said the agreement would make their struggle to survive even more difficult.

“For all the president’s talk of helping small businesses survive, his administration is sure doing their best to destroy small trucking companies and the drivers they employ,” said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

So diplomacy, while angering the unions and independent truckers, has perhaps repaired some of the damage, and maybe the markets Washington farmers carefully cultivated in Mexico will slowly recover.

The unhappy truckers and unions might want to ask themselves this: “If the farmers can’t sell what they grow for a profit, how can they pay a trucker to haul it?”

And if Congress had let negotiations continue in the first place instead of taking its budgetary meat ax to the problem, would we have had a better solution two years ago?

That might be worth remembering as senators and representatives tackle the much tougher issue of the federal budget. Casually wielding the budgetary ax while mouthing an appealing TV sound bite might not be applying the right tool.

Unless the desired result is to create a much larger mess than the $2.4 billion worth of retaliatory tariffs that the diplomats are now having to clean up.

Read more here: http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2011/03/03/1392264/a-cautionary-tale-for-congress.html#storylink=cpy