Lawmakers hope to enact port-staffing bill before Trump takes over

Federal legislation to beef up staffing and improve facilities at the country’s southern land ports is being viewed with a renewed sense of urgency in light of President-elect Donald Trump’s rhetoric about scaling back major trade pacts.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed Texas Sen. John Cornyn’s Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act, which would allow local governments and private businesses to partner with Customs and Border Protection to fund staffing and improvement projects. 

A similar effort began as a pilot project in 2013, but Cornyn’s legislation, which is being carried in the U.S. House by Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, seeks to make it permanent.

Cornyn said both parties in Washington have historically failed to live up to their responsibilities to adequately fund ports and has championed similar legislation for years. But he said Wednesday that lawmakers couldn't hesitate now with all the grumbling about trade deals. 

“I think just a lot of the loose talk about trade being bad, or that NAFTA somehow is a bad deal, has sort of made it clear that we need to be not sitting on the sidelines or ambivalent about this,” Cornyn said during a conference call with reporters.

Trump said on the campaign trail that NAFTA was a bad deal for the United States and said he’d work to end or renegotiate the trade pact if elected. The 1994 agreement gradually eliminated most tariffs on several goods traded between Canada, Mexico and the United States and made El Paso and Laredo two of the country’s most important trade hubs.

From January to September of this year, the Laredo and El Paso customs districts have seen $203 billion and $71.3 billion in two-way trade with Mexico, respectively, according to WorldCity, a Florida-based economics think tank that uses U.S. Census data to track trade patterns. 

Cornyn conceded that the benefits of NAFTA aren’t spread evenly throughout the country and that states adversely affected should qualify for job-training initiatives that help offset whatever jobs were shipped overseas. But he remained confident that despite the current negative chatter about trade, his colleagues in the U.S. House, including Cuellar and U.S. Reps. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, and Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, would help pass the measure before Congress leaves town next month.

Hurd's office said the urgency on his end doesn't stem from Trump's comments but instead the fact that Congress adjourns in a matter of days. If the bill doesn't make it to President Obama's desk soon, then lawmakers would have to start from scratch next year.


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