Dougherty, Carter, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
A panel of international arbitrators will hand down a decision soon on whether the United States violated the North American Free Trade Agreement by not opening its border to Mexican trucks.
An adverse decision, which most observers consider a virtual certainty, would drop into the Clinton administration's lap a political hot potato that would aggravate divisions within the Democratic Party over free trade shortly before a closely fought presidential election.
The United States refused to make good on its NAFTA promise to let in Mexican big rigs beginning in December 1995 on the grounds that Mexican trucks were unsafe. The move prompted charges that, with one eye on the 1996 election, it was pandering to the union truck drivers in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Mexico, fed up with the delays, took the United States to court last year, and a decision is expected "anytime now," a senior U.S. official said.
"We are clearly violating our own agreement," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican who is a leader on trade issues. "We are doing something that is not one whit better than what we criticize in other countries."
But NAFTA rules require that the United States open its door to Mexican trucks, without any caveats regarding the safety of those vehicles. As a result, the United States is facing a loss in the arbitration proceeding.
"We are in absolute violation of the NAFTA," said Gary Hufbauer, a trade specialist at the Institute for International Economics. "There is just no doubt."
A decision before the election would be a thorn in the side of Vice President Al Gore, who has struggled to win over union members skeptical of free trade and particularly hostile to NAFTA.
The Teamsters, who have endorsed Mr. Gore's bid for the White House, say they expect the administration to stand firm, even if the United States loses in arbitration. And observers say the Teamsters may be able to extract such a commitment from Mr. Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate, if a decision comes down before the election.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican nominee and an avid NAFTA supporter, has called for inspections of Mexican trucks as they enter the United States, but believes that the border must be opened, Bush campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan said.
"Since NAFTA requires cross-border trucking, the United States should live up to the agreement," Mr. Sullivan said. Opponents of the NAFTA rule, an assortment of automobile-safety groups, insurance companies and consumer advocates, charge that it threatens to unleash a wave of accidents on American highways. They are already demanding that the Clinton administration keep the border closed. …