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Truck Stop

Congress flashes a yellow light on free trade with Mexico.

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Friday, March 6, 2009; Page A14

PRESIDENT OBAMA seems to have resolved, for now, an incipient dispute with Canada over "Buy American" rules in the stimulus package. The law would have hurt Canadian steel exports to the United States, but, at the White House's insistence, Congress appended language that blunted the worst protectionist consequences. Now, however, Congress has turned on Mexico, the United States' other partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement. A $410 billion omnibus spending bill contains a provision that would pretty much kill any chance that long-haul freight trucks from Mexico could operate in the United States, as had been promised under NAFTA.

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Economically, giving U.S. and Mexican trucks reciprocal access to each other's markets makes a lot of sense. Currently, Mexican rigs can drive in only a small zone on the U.S. side of the border, where they must offload their goods onto U.S. trucks. The process wastes time, money and fuel, harming the U.S. environment and raising the cost of Mexican goods to U.S. consumers. Yet access for Mexican trucks has been bitterly resisted by U.S. interests, most notably the Teamsters union -- which claims that poorly regulated trucks from south of the border would be a menace on U.S. highways.

In an effort to disprove that, the Bush administration promoted a pilot project under which Mexican trucks, screened by U.S. personnel, could operate freely within the United States. The Mexican trucks compiled a safety record comparable to that of American rigs. Mexican participation was limited, however, because of the political uncertainty. And safety was always a smokescreen for the Teamsters' real concern -- economic turf -- anyway. Now the Democratic majority on the Hill has slipped into the omnibus bill a provision killing the program. The provision seems certain to survive, given that the president supported such a measure when he was a senator; his transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, backed it as a member of the House.

When the U.S. economy needs all the help it can get, this legislation perpetuates inefficiency and invites Mexican retaliation against U.S. exports. To a world looking for signs that Democratic rule in Washington would not mean revived protectionism, this can only be a disappointment.

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