Hear that creaking noise? That's the sound of Congress pulling up the rusty drawbridge that connects the U.S. with the rest of the world. Whether the issue is trade, investment, cross-border truck travel or immigration, Congress has been shunning expansion or actively pulling back. Unfortunately, the U.S. trucking industry stands to lose on every count from these changes.
Take trade. Motor carriers benefit from expanding traffic to and from ports. Truckers win again from the lower prices and wider choices that imports bring about, enabling consumers and import-dependent businesses to purchase more goods.
The President's authority to negotiate “fast-track” trade agreements expired on June 30. Without it, other countries will be reluctant to initial an agreement, knowing Congress can pick it apart and add more conditions, no matter how many concessions a trading partner offers the U.S.
Congress has also failed to ratify some agreements that have already been initialed. Again, other nations will walk away from negotiations if they don't believe an agreement will be put into force.
The U.S. has been pulling back the welcome mat from foreign investors. The most notorious example was the refusal to allow Dubai Ports World to buy U.S. port operations. That deprives several terminals of the funding and management to expand and improve operations for trucks as well as other port users.
More recently, there are efforts in Congress to slow or stop the long-term leasing of toll facilities. Not coincidentally, most of the leasing that has occurred so far involves foreign investors. But neither Congress nor state legislatures have shown much willingness to boost public funding of highway construction or reconstruction, even though the federal highway account is speeding toward insolvency. By blocking private funds, Congress is condemning truckers and motorists to ever bumpier and more crowded major roads.
Congress also jumped in recently to block the Administration's pilot project to allow Mexican trucks into the U.S. On May 25, President Bush signed an “emergency” spending bill to increase funding for the war in Iraq. Tucked into the legislation were requirements such as DOT certification that safety and inspection standards be met before the program can begin.
Although some U.S. truckers might welcome keeping the Mexican vehicles out, the flip side is that U.S. carriers will similarly be denied the opportunity to roam in Mexico. Given the much greater capital resources of U.S. firms, it looks as if companies on this side of the border will be the bigger losers from this continued Mexican standoff.
Trucking looks like a loser as well from the failure of the Senate to pass an immigration bill in early June. Continuation of the status quo will keep motor carriers from importing more of the labor they will need as aging drivers retire. Further, failure to provide legal status to many current and future immigrants will keep them from filling openings in other industries. As a result, those industries will draw more on the pool of workers the trucking industry also relies on, making recruitment of new U.S. workers into trucking all the harder.
The bottom line: Foreign investors and manufacturers have provided U.S. truckers with a much wider choice of vehicles. They have the potential to upgrade some of the roads with the heaviest truck traffic. Trade agreements have kept their trucks full. Relatively open immigration has enabled carriers to find more drivers and mechanics to operate and maintain those vehicles. It would be a shame if trucking executives fail to tell Congress, “Don't pull up the drawbridge!”