WASHINGTON — A Democratic senator rebuked President Bush's transportation chief on Tuesday for allowing Mexican trucks to travel into the United States despite what he said was a clear ban by Congress.
"I think there is an arrogance here that is all too common in this administration," Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., told Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. "You will do what you will do, but I will tell you there will be consequences to that."
The Cabinet secretary defended the administration policy, telling Dorgan, "There is no intention to disrespect you or this Congress."
Dorgan, one of the leading congressional critics of the cross-border trucking program, summoned Peters and other transportation officials to a hearing to scrutinize the administration's continuation of the pilot program after Congress voted to cut off money for it.
The initiative, which stems from the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, allows Mexican trucks to begin traveling beyond a 25-mile zone into the U.S. interior. U.S. trucks participating in the pilot program now are permitted beyond a similar border zone in Mexico to haul cargo deep into that country.
The demonstration project, which is tied to the larger debate over U.S. immigration policies, has prompted widespread opposition in Congress. But Peters said that concerns over safety were unwarranted, and she defended the initiative as a well-regulated program that will offer a substantial boost for U.S. truckers doing business in Mexico.
Peters and D.J. Gribbin, the department's general counsel, restated the administration's contention that the congressional action permits the pilot program to continue but bans any future program.
Dorgan and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., the only other senator who participated in the hearing, told the administration officials that Congress clearly intended to keep Mexican 18-wheelers out of the United States.
"This is a slap in the face of Congress," Dorgan said.
Dorgan told Peters that he regretted supporting her nomination. He said he'd asked the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, to determine whether Peters' department had committed criminal and civil violations under a law that prohibits the expenditure of federal money in a manner contrary to that allowed by Congress.
Calvin Scovel III, the department's inspector general, testified that he couldn't make any meaningful conclusions about the program's safety because far fewer companies and vehicles have participated in the project than had been expected.
The department planned for 100 Mexican companies, but as of last Thursday only 19 carriers had been authorized to participate, and one of those had withdrawn after being cited for numerous violations, which transportation officials said were largely minor.
Mexican trucks have made 247 trips beyond the commercial border zone, most of which were to California, Scovel said.