On Tuesday, Nov. 20, the United States Senate was called to order by the only senator present: James Webb (D-Va.). Seven seconds later he adjourned the session and left.
It was merely a pro forma session — a formality. Other senators and most members of the House had long since departed for their two-week Thanksgiving holiday. The Senate procedure, conducted more than once, was designed to prevent the President from making "recess appointments" to the executive or judicial branches of government while lawmakers were celebrating the holiday.
They left a mountain of work undone — roughly a dozen high-priority appropriations bills, some of which will probably be delayed until the new year. Among them: the spending bill known as Transportation-HUD (THUD, for short). It would set the Department of Transportation's 2008 budget at more than $105 billion (see story on page 18).
It's also the bill with the provision to kill funding for the cross-border trucking pilot program with Mexico. The House passed it before recessing for the holiday.
By the time you read this, the Senate may have passed the bill as expected, and President Bush may have made it go THUD with a veto, as he has vowed to do all along. Congress supposedly doesn't have the votes to override such a veto.
Under that scenario the door stays open for qualified Mexican and U.S. carriers to continue hauling anywhere in each other's country — at least until the next round of this fight, when THUD will likely be combined with other appropriations bills. The pilot program also could wind up in court. The Teamsters' lawsuit attempting to kill it is expected to be heard in San Francisco early next year.
Both sides of the cross-border issue have been vocal — and adamant — in their positions. But what about the people who find themselves in the middle — the handful of U.S. and Mexican carriers who are actually operating trucks in the pilot program?
As of Thanksgiving, the three American carriers involved have a total of 30 trucks signed up to run past Mexico's Maquiladora zones under the trial plan. The five Mexican haulers have a total of 15 rigs signed up to operate openly in the United States.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration tells them that the program will survive, period. But so far the carriers have been cautious, only dabbling at going deeper into the respective countries than previously allowed. While they're keeping a low profile, some interesting aspects have surfaced.
For one, Americans hauling general freight into Mexico only pay around $1,000 per truck per year for insurance coverage there (apparently Mexico doesn't have to support as many trial lawyers as we do). Conversely, Mexican carriers pay upwards of $10,000 a year per truck — the kind of rates we're used to — in order to operate here.
That's an advantage for the Americans, but they face other obstacles, such as dirt access roads to delivery points that wash out when it rains. Thus far, we've heard of no problems from either the U.S. or Mexican fleets operating in the program, but we have heard that the Americans are being flooded with calls from shippers wanting them to haul all sorts of freight into Mexico.
But back to the Congressional scene. At about the time legislators took two weeks off for Thanksgiving, a Gallup poll set Americans' approval rating for this Congress at 20 percent, pretty near its all-time low of 18 percent.
So much to do. So many pre-election partisan conflicts. So little time. And Christmas vacation is coming.
If this Congress stays on its current track, it won't be putting much under our tree this year.
E-mail Doug Condra at email@example.com, or write P.O. Box W, Newport Beach, CA 92658.