On the Back Burner (Again)

Published Jan 11, 2011 8:53 AM by The Maritime Executive

As Congress inches along towards the July 4th break, a lot is happening on the maritime front. But, you won’t hear about any of it.

Looking back on last November’s contentious and prolonged presidential and congressional elections, I can’t help but remember the impassioned zeal with which one candidate or another would bestow his or her support for the maritime industries and the collective waterfront. That was then; this is now. Fast forward to the dog days of summer and you’ll hear a different tune altogether. In a depressingly similar theme that has played itself out time and time again, the maritime agenda is quietly being pushed to the back burner as more pressing issues take up every inch of newspaper print and television coverage. As this happens, you shouldn’t be surprised. You should not be happy about it, either.

All eyes are on two major stories inside the beltway this summer: healthcare reform and the newest Supreme Court nomination. In the meantime, MarEx readers might want to know that there are also a myriad of other bills and initiatives in play, all focusing on matters that will likely affect your bottom line, down the road. Here’s just a sampling of what’s out there:

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• HR 2650 - Coast Guard Modernization Act of 2009, Sponsor: Oberstar, James L. (D-MN); Official Title: A bill to amend Title 14, United States Code, to modernize the leadership of the Coast Guard, to modernize the administration of marine safety by the Coast Guard, and for other purposes. Introduced: June 2, 2009;

• HR 2651 - Maritime Workforce Development Act, Sponsor: Cummings, Elijah E. (D-MD); Official Title: A bill to amend Title 46, United States Code, to direct the secretary of Transportation to establish a maritime career training loan program, and for other purposes. Introduced: June 2, 2009;

• HR 2652 - Maritime Safety Act of 2009, Sponsor: Oberstar, James L. (D-MN); Official Title: A bill to amend Title 46, United States Code, to improve vessel safety, and for other purposes. Introduced: June 2, 2009.

All of these bills are important. But, that’s not all: The Coast Guard is also inching (at an agonizingly slow pace thanks largely to the Obama Administration’s insistence on running a fine tooth comb through every rule-making that came before them) towards a ballast water rulemaking that is currently under review at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The effort, in play for almost ten years, might just yield some fruit in the not too distant future.

The stimulus package shipyard funds are also waiting to be deployed. About $98 million is available through the U.S. Maritime Administration, which intends to award the full amount of the available funding through grants to the extent that there are worthy applications. With over 500 applications received, requesting over $1.25 billion, that shouldn’t be a problem. Successful applicants will reportedly be contacted by Maritime Administration staff prior to August 17, 2009.

On the other hand, the shipyard stimulus funds, which otherwise might look like a lot of money, represent but a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars made available for infrastructure projects. Although Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week that a “significant” amount of $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money will go for port infrastructure and related freight transportation projects, the extent to which he can follow through on this promise remains to be seen.

Also lurking in the background is an effort to eliminate the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) as it affects the shortsea component of sea legs. The HMT, as it stands now, derives absolutely no revenue from shortsea shipping, simply because no one is stupid enough to be taxed twice on the same cargo when that box or commodity can be shipped overland without the added expense. Of course, the roads and interstate highways are literally groaning – crumbling in fact – under the weight of all of this cargo, and the added air pollution is choking us to death. Your morning commute? It’s only going to get worse, especially since the vehicle to fund road repairs is about to go broke.

Any number of players are waiting in the wings to get feeder routes started once the shortsea HMT is eliminated. And, it is just this sort of thing that might give the domestic maritime engine, on the water and in the shipyard, the “kick-start” that it desperately needs. Are there more important things for Washington legislators to be considering? From my perspective, the answer is “No."

Finally, and this is important: it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the Obama Administration is (finally) filling every conceivable sub-cabinet post imaginable. Within the last week or so, NTSB and FMC seats have been nominated and of course, before that, the other modal administrators are largely all in place or in the confirmation process. Notably absent from that group is the naming of the U.S. Maritime Administrator. And, for anyone who doubted the importance of this role in the past, the guy who last held the seat – Sean Connaughton – proved that things can get done on the waterfront.

The next administrator will need to know his or her way around the Hill, but the chair has been empty since January and there is no apparent sense of urgency to fill it in the meantime. And let’s be clear here: James Caponiti is a fine public servant, a career SES government worker doing good work at DOT and the Maritime Administration. But, the role of the Maritime Administrator is, to a large extent, a political one. If it wasn’t, Connaughton – arguably the most effective administrator in two decades – would still be at MARAD, instead of working the Hill for ABS. This isn't the slowest nomination process on record, but it certainly will not set any records for speed, either.

As the legislative agendas, battles and votes unfold in Washington this Summer, let’s also hope that just a small portion of the exciting action contains some improvements to the maritime picture. Past history doesn’t necessarily bode well for those prospects. We’ve all seen it all too often; Lip service to the maritime industry during the campaign and no service at all once it is over. This year, and as the weather heats up, you should make time to turn well past the front pages and lead stories to see what is really happening. Who knows, maybe all that hot air will, for once, produce results. Or, more likely, we’ll find our agenda getting cold on the back burner, yet again.– MarEx.

Joseph Keefe is the Editor in Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at [email protected] Join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685