Have you been following this latest "let's gut the goose" outrage? A snide but combative Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters was accused in a Senate hearing yesterday of defying a congressional vote to halt the Bush administration's controversial project allowing Mexican trucks to operate freely on U.S. roads.
"I regret supporting your nomination to be secretary of transportation," Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, told Peters. "Your legal counsel is giving you bad advice that unfortunately you have willingly accepted. "Dorgan charged the Department of Transportation was "hell-bent on proceeding with this pilot program" regardless of safety concerns the agency's inspector general continues to document. "You believe you have found a loophole, but you are making a very big mistake," Dorgan warned Peters, adding, "This is a slap in the face of Congress," he declared, "and your arrogance will have consequences."
Dorgan joined with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-PA, and Reps. Jim Oberstar, D-MN, and Peter DeFazio, D-OR, in a bipartisan, bicameral request for the General Accountability Office to investigate the DOT's decision to continue the cross-border Mexican truck demonstration project. The lawmakers charged DOT has violated the Antideficiency Act, which specifies both civil and criminal penalties when federal government officials spend money not appropriated by Congress.
Still, Peters indicated the Department of Transportation was determined to persist with the Mexican project even if a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals should order DOT to stop in response to a suit brought by the Teamsters. "We will appeal any adverse court decision to the Supreme Court," Peters told the committee, "but we have no plan right now to stop the current cross-border Mexican truck demonstration project."
As reported, the Senate voted 74 to 24 in September to prohibit the DOT from using any funds in its fiscal year 2008 budget for the truck project, a measure signed into law by President Bush Dec. 26 as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The Bush administration, however, has decided to proceed with the program, contending the congressional language prohibited only the creation of future pilot programs, not the current one.
"This is sheer nonsense," Dorgan told Peters, opening what turned out to be a very tense hearing. "I have a letter from the Senate legislative counsel, who drafted this provision. The letter states very clearly that the amendment passed by Congress 'intended to preclude the carrying out of any demonstration program, including the pilot program put into effect in September 2007."
DOT general counsel D.J. Gribbin, accompanying Peters at the hearing, asserted the exact legislative language prohibited the department only from spending 2008 funds "to establish" any new programs. Gribbin further argued that by not specifying "establish or implement," Congress did not prohibit DOT from implementing a project that already had been established when the Dorgan amendment passed, regardless of what Congress may have intended.
In the following exchange, Dorgan expressed outrage, charging that Peters and the Bush administration were engaging in an exercise to parse words, when the legislative intent of Congress was clear. "You know better than that," Dorgan chided Gribbin. "I find it a creative way to read the statute, but everybody disagrees with you."
Dorgan produced a chart quoting Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, on the floor of the Senate the evening the Dorgan amendment passed, saying, "Unfortunately, the Senate has voted 74 to 24 to prevent the pilot from going forward."
"Everybody understood what we were voting for," Dorgan countered. "The vote was an overwhelming expression of the Senate to block the cross-border Mexican truck demonstration project, and everybody knew it."
Also appearing with Peters was Calvin L. Scovel III, the DOT inspector general. Scovel's office issued an interim report Monday on the demonstration project which concluded that not every Mexican truck entering the U.S. was undergoing the safety checks Peters initially had promised Congress. "The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has yet failed to implement key quality control elements that the Department of Transportation assured Congress would now be in place," Scovel was forced to admit.
"We simply don't know if every Mexican truck has been inspected every time it enters the United States," he conceded under intense questioning from Dorgan.
In a statement issued Monday, Dorgan said the Transportation Department "is not above the law."
"When Congress passes a law that says no funds can be used for this program, we mean no funds can be used for this program," he said. "The Department of Transportation cannot simply pick and choose which laws they want to follow and which laws they want to break."