Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., last week inserted language in a fiscal 2011 transportation appropriations bill calling on the Obama administration to come up with a plan by Oct. 1 to end Mexico's retaliatory tariffs on Washington agricultural products. That plan, by necessity, would entail giving long-haul Mexican trucks full access to U.S. highways, as required under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Murray and other members of the Washington congressional delegation have been pushing the Obama administration to honor this NAFTA obligation since early 2009, when the administration caved to the Teamsters union and closed the southern border to long-haul Mexican trucks. Washington growers were hard hit by the 20 percent tariffs Mexico slapped on a wide range of U.S. agricultural products in retaliation.
The damage those tariffs have inflected on potato growers has been particularly severe. In the first 10 months, alone, Washington suffered an estimated $14 million decline in frozen potatoes exported to Mexico, according to the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Wash. The state's potato industry supports about 20,000 jobs. Mexico is the No. 2 international export market for Washington frozen potatoes.
There's reason to worry that the damaging effect of this trade dispute will outlive the punitive tariffs. Mexico now shops elsewhere for many of the farm products it used to buy from Washington growers. It's buying most of its frozen potatoes from Canada. Kevin McCullen of the Tri-City Herald reported last spring that "agricultural leaders fear Washington spud growers could permanently lose their share of the Mexican market and see job cuts in some food processing and handling facilities."
Protectionist trade policies invariably deliver more economic pain than gain. The pain continues to worsen for as long as the barriers to free trade remain in place. It's past time that the Obama administration brought an end to this damaging U.S.-Mexico trade dispute. The administration must find the political courage to say "no" to its union supporters and honor the nation's treaty obligations.
Mexican Long-haul trucks were supposed to have full access to U.S. highways by 2000. It wasn't until 2007 that the Bush administration was able to overcome congressional opposition and launch a limited cross-border trucking program. Significantly, that pilot program served to debunk union arguments that Mexican trucks were unsafe. Mexican trucks crossed into the United States more than 46,000 times without one significant incident before the Obama administration shut the program down after 18 months.
Of course, safety was never what motivated union opponents of cross-border Mexican trucking. Their sole motivation was a desire to protect U.S. truckers against foreign competition. For lawmakers, it was simply a matter of pandering to an influential constituency. But the cost of that political calculation grows more intolerable by the day. The administration should heed Murray's call to end this trade dispute.
- Longview Daily News