Haphazard Policies Threaten Future of U.S. Merchant Marine

Jobs are at stake ? not to mention the nation?s economic and military security.

By Denise Krepp 03-26-2013 02:11:00

Congress and the Administration do not understand the relationship between the U.S. merchant fleet, the military, and trade. This lack of understanding has created haphazard policies that are gutting the fleet and inhibiting the private sector's ability to recapitalize our aging maritime industry. The time for action is now. Congress and the Administration are considering budget proposals that, if unopposed, would destroy the U.S. maritime industry and hand over our maritime supremacy to foreign carriers.

The lack of understanding was clearly evident during a recent visit by President Obama to the Newport News Shipbuilding facility in Virginia. The facility employs 22,000 people in the state. The purpose of the President's visit was to draw attention to sequestration's impact on the military. The President, however, did not talk about the impact on the U.S. merchant fleet. Shipyards like the one in Newport News also build commercial vessels. When shipyard employees are laid off, neither military nor commercial vessels are built.

Joined at the Hip

The U.S. merchant fleet and our military have had a close relationship since the founding our nation. The U.S. went to war against Britain two hundred years ago with the rally cry of “Free Trade and Sailors' Rights” because the British Navy was impressing U.S. mariners. These mariners then provided supported to the U.S. military during World War II, the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf and Iraq wars. The military relied on the U.S. merchant fleet to transport much-needed ammunition and supplies. As many a general and admiral know, battles are won or lost based upon the success of the logistics chain. “An army moves on its stomach,” Napoleon famously said.

Our nation's economic superiority is also linked to the military and the U.S. merchant fleet. In the late 1800s, under the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the government expanded the Navy. Mahan believed that national greatness depended upon control of the sea. The increased naval fleet provided protection for our U.S. merchant fleet, allowing it to safely transport U.S. manufactured goods around the world. The same theory applies today. The applicability of the theory, however, has been put in jeopardy with the decreased number of naval ships available to protect our U.S.-flagged imports and exports.

While Congressional leadership is drafting legislation gutting the shipbuilding industry, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) is currently working on legislation to improve the state of our waterways infrastructure. According to the Chairman, “(i)mproving the efficiency of our locks and dams, inland waterways, ports, and waterborne transportation is essential to maintain and improve U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.” These improvements, however, can't be made if U.S. crews and vessels are not available to transport goods along America's vast waterways system.

The availability of U.S. crews and vessels has been further compromised by legislation developed by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin). Chairman Ryan's fiscal year 2014 proposal includes language that would eliminate the ocean freight differential program for food aid. U.S. law states that food aid must be transported on U.S. ships, thereby creating jobs for U.S. farmers and mariners. According to Ryan, this program “needlessly adds to taxpayer cost for these humanitarian missions.” Chairman Ryan does not realize that vessels transporting U.S. food aid are the same ones that provide our military with much-needed supplies and ammunition. The Administration has indicated that it wants to write a check for food aid instead of sending grain, so it may not oppose Chairman Ryan's language.

“One Phone Call at a Time”

The American public can educate Congress and the Administration about the relationship between the military, trade, and the U.S. merchant fleet, one phone call at a time. Every time a constituent calls a Member of Congress, the congressional staffer answering the call must log it in.  Call logs are reviewed by Members and can directly impact how they vote on legislation. Everyone should pick up the phone over the next couple of weeks and tell their Member that maritime matters. If you don't know who your Member is, you can find this information on the Library of Congress website at thomas.loc.gov.

Additionally, constituents can influence questions that Members of Congress ask Administration officials at hearings. Hearings are held so that Members can learn more about Administration appointees and decisions. Everyone has the right to request that their Member ask specific questions during a hearing. These questions can include: “Do you support the U.S. shipbuilding industry?”; “Do you support the Jones Act,” and “Do you support cargo preference?” 

The questions above could be asked at the upcoming April 9th Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee confirmation hearing for Secretary of Energy nominee Ernest Moniz, the April 16th Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee budget hearing, and the confirmation hearing for the new Secretary of Transportation when he or she is nominated. Lastly, Senators can always ask questions of Administration-proposed appointees after confirmation hearings and before full Senate approval.

The only ones who will win from disjointed policies that gut the U.S. merchant fleet are foreign carriers.  These carriers are poised to take over the responsibility of transporting our military's guns and supplies. They are also primed to take over control of the sea. One phone call at a time can change the current course of action. Supplementing these calls with emails will put enough pressure on Congress and the Administration to make them understand that maritime matters to everyone. – MarEx

K. Denise Rucker Krepp is a homeland security, transportation, and energy expert who began her career as an active duty Coast Guard officer in 1998. After September 11th, Ms. Krepp was part of the team that created the Transportation Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Ms. Krepp joined the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee in 2005 and drafted the maritime and surface transportation sections of the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. She also wrote Detour Ahead: Critical Vulnerabilities on America’s Rail and Mass Transit Security Programs (http://hsc-democrats.house.gov/SiteDocuments/20060801153711-86476.pdf). Ms. Krepp served as Chief Counsel at the U.S. Maritime Administration and Special Counsel to the General Counsel at the U.S. Department of Transportation during the first Obama administration. She is currently a private consultant and professor at The George Washington University and Pennsylvania State University. Ms. Krepp is also on the Board of Directors for The Infrastructure Security Partnership.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.