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Kindest and Other Trump Cuts

In Congress, Energy/Environ, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Ports, Security, Transportation Policy on March 20, 2017 at 11:44 am

President Donald Trump’s 62-page “skinny” budget proposal — he calls it his budget “blueprint” — is devastatingly consequential for most departments and agencies. (See my prior post.) It tells you, for example, that the State Department will take a 28 percent hit should Congress concur in this first Trump Administration budget request, but it is short on how the programs at State and most other departments will be affected. For that we will have to wait a few more months until the main budget document is to be released — or leaks emerge — and the various budget experts do their analysis.

Will Congress adopt the president’s idea of winners and losers? Maybe not. His proposal is hardly a strictly partisan expression to which all Republicans will faithfully adhere, even if it is in the direction that they want to support. Moreover, as much as he wants to see a big defense build-up, dealer Donald Trump’s budget has to be seen as his opening gambit in an appropriations process that is only just getting started. Meanwhile, the budget document and agency press releases provide some information. Here is what we know.

Corps of Engineers
The USACE civil works program proposed number of $5 billion is $1 billion less than current year funding — a 16.3 percent reduction — but, historically, that’s not so bad. That is actually higher than the Obama FY17 budget. Every White House low-balls the Corps budget. The annual fiscal dance is for the president to bid low because he knows Congress will respond high. There is no more detail to report at this point. If there is a caution here it is that the Corps budget can’t be viewed in isolation from the total Federal budget. This clearly is not a normal year. If the Defense Department and Homeland Security are going to benefit in the substantial way that the White House proposes, the competition will be for your program to lose less than the others. If Congress were to provide the civil works program with more than $5 billion, as it has in recent years, that might come from other parts of the budget that are already proposed for stiff reductions.

Transportation
The budget blueprint shows a $2.4 billion reduction in spending over current year levels — a cut of 13 percent — and contains enough detail to identify some major programs targeted for elimination. Not surprisingly, the $500 million, multimodal TIGER grant program is prominent in that category. The White House would remove this most reliable source of funding for non-navigation port projects, including inside-the-gate improvements. (About $51 million was awarded to six port-related projects in FY2016.) TIGER, started in 2009, has survived past Republican efforts to eliminate funding but it has had strong support from Democrats and even Republicans. The White House is not alone in suggesting that TIGER is to some extent duplicated by the FASTLANE grants program that was created in the FAST Act and is dedicated to freight projects. (The Trump budget retains FASTLANE.) However, that part of the five-year FASTLANE program that most interests ports is the multimodal portion that is not limited to highway projects. Much of the total $500 million multimodal authorization was allocated in just the first year of the $900 million annually authorized spending for FASTLANE. There is no such modal limitation in TIGER. We will see if appropriators allow TIGER to end.

The DOT budget also would also eliminate funding for long-distance Amtrak operations, start down the path to private sector management of the air traffic control system, end the Essential Air Service program that is a major benefit for rural states, and close out a transit capital grant program.

Secretary Elaine Chao issued a statement on the budget blueprint announcement. It includes an oddly incongruent description of a national budget that the OMB itself acknowledges does not address deficit reduction. It also references an Administration talking point that, while proposing to reduce spending on transportation infrastructure, the budget is consistent with whatever will be the promised trillion dollar infrastructure initiative. The Secretary’s statement explains that the “strategy behind” the DOT capital spending cuts “is to move money out” of existing programs and into “more efficient programs” in the still undefined Trump initiative. We will have to see how that manages to end up being a net plus for transportation projects. From Chao’s statement:

This is a strategic document that looks to the future, and is designed to send a clear message on deficit reduction. For DOT, it addresses the department’s discretionary programs, which make up about one-quarter of the Department’s total resources. These proposed savings are largely geared towards future program investments, so they will not have an immediate direct impact on our DOT colleagues. This is just the beginning of the budget process, not the end. We will see the more complete picture when OMB releases its final FY 2018 budget in May, and as the President’s infrastructure initiative takes shape. In fact, OMB Director Mulvaney noted yesterday that the strategy behind the savings in the DOT budget is to move money out of existing, inefficient programs and hold these funds for more efficient programs that will be included in the infrastructure package under development.

E&E News reported that OMB Director “Mick Mulvaney said the cuts to federal funds for transit and roads would be balanced by an infrastructure package coming to Congress in the fall. The grants proposed for elimination in yesterday’s spending wish list were targeted “in anticipation” of a more fleshed-out White House plan…”

The lead Democrat on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Peter DeFazio (D-OR), was not complimentary, and not without irony, in commenting on the Trump planned cuts for USDOT.

The skinny budget exposes that as a big, fat lie. These are real investments. They could be putting people to work this summer. It’s infinitely stupid for Republicans who have just taken over everything to give up TIGER grants, which are at the discretion of the Republican Secretary of Transportation, and I’m sure they’ll use them much more politically than the dunces at the Obama administration did. [E&E News]

Homeland Security
DHS is proposed to get 6.8 percent more in the coming year to benefit the construction of a southern border wall and heightened enforcement of US immigration law through technological and human resources. Significant additions of personnel — 500 more in Customs & Border Patrol (CBP)  and 1,000 more for Immigration Control & Enforcement (ICE), plus support staff — also are intended to strengthen border security. Another $1.5 billion is slated for cybersecurity activity to protect Federal networks and critical infrastructure.

The budget proposes to cut State and Local security grants by $667 million. Earlier reports suggested a probable 40 percent reduction in the Port Security Grant Program but analysis by the Democrats of the House Appropriations Committee concludes that the budget means a 25 percent reduction in the program, from $100 million to $75 million.

According to prior releases of information the budget includes a cut in the Coast Guard, but that is not highlighted in the materials released by the White House and DHS yesterday. Instead, the DHS release simply says that the budget “sustains current funding levels [for the Coast Guard]…which allows for the continuation of day-to-day operations and investments in the Acquisition, Construction, & Improvements account.”

The budget document also states that the Transportation Security Administration will experience the elimination and reduction of “unauthorized and underperforming programs.” Details presumably to follow.

Environmental Protection
Of all the Federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency is targeted by the Trump Administration for the deepest cut — a 31 percent spending reduction. The budget statement offers an ironic compliment (kindest cut?) in suggesting that the “budget for EPA reflects the success of environmental protection efforts…” as if to say, “job well done.” The EPA section appears to be the only one of the two-page department and agency sections that specifically notes the anticipated reduction in personnel — “3,200 fewer positions.”

The proposed budget provides “robust funding for critical drinking and wastewater infrastructure” that is comparable to current levels. It ends funding for Obama’s “Clean Power Plan, international climate programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts…” It reduces the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance budget, reduces Categorical Grants funding, and “eliminates more than 50 EPA programs that are “lower priority,” “poorly performing,” and “duplicative.”

The budget document proposal to end funding for multi-state regional efforts such as restoring Chesapeake Bay. The proposal to end funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative  is no partisan matter. Nine senators led by Rob Portman (R-OH) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) sent a letter to the White House expressing their concerns, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) joined them in opposing the cuts.  Pbea

A Budget Like None Other?

In Congress, Federal Government, Leadership, President on March 20, 2017 at 9:31 am

A budget that puts America first must make the safety of our people its number one priority — because without safety, there can be no prosperity.   [President Donald Trump in the introduction to his FY18 Budget Blueprint]

President Trump defines public safety in a way that accommodates a substantial reduction in environmental enforcement, diplomacy, and foreign assistance in order to spend more on the Pentagon and border enforcement. His zero sum approach adheres to current, statutory limits on overall Federal spending, thus there are clear winners and clear losers in his “blueprint” for the FY18 budget that was sent to the Hill last Thursday.

Donald Trump’s top-line budget — most details still months away — is the sort that Congress has not been seen in my 45 years working in Washington…and probably not for many decades prior that. Certainly not since some of those departments were created. Threats to cut the budget to some extent, yes. Largely empty campaign promises to eliminate departments, sure. But not a 10 percent increase for the single largest department that already has the equivalent of all other government agencies’ discretionary spending, combined.

Defense would see a $54 billion increase while the Transportation Department would see a 12.7 percent reduction, Labor Department 20.7 percent, State Department 28.7 percent, and Environmental Protection Agency 31.4 percent. Of the 13 Cabinet departments that are proposed for cuts only three are targeted for drops less than 10 percent. Only Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs are slated to see increases.

Consistent with the President’s approach to move the Nation toward fiscal responsibility, the Budget eliminates and reduces hundreds of programs and focuses funding to refine the proper role of the Federal Government. [from “Budget Highlights”]

The proposed budget does nothing to reduce spending in the aggregate. In fact, it challenges Republicans in Congress to set aside their first opportunity in a while for two legislative chambers and the White House to cut overall spending.

This isn’t the first time Republicans control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, of course. But it is as if it takes someone with no experience in government to know what are disposable missions and programs across the Federal government. Or, perhaps, it takes such a person to simply not care. Nineteen agencies — many small and obscure but among them the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Art, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the U.S. Institute for Peace — are specifically identified for elimination. Other unidentified agencies apparently would be substantially weakened by cuts.

The president’s first budget message faces a predictably rocky road ahead. His own party may be in charge of Congress but that doesn’t protect Trump’s “skinny” budget — an average of two pages per department — from also being called “dead on arrival.” DOA is the usual label legislators apply to any president’s budget submission. However, it may be no more apropos than it is for Donald Trump’s first budget policy expression. A representative counter expression on Capitol Hill is that of fellow Republican Hal Rogers (KY) who served for six years as chair of House Appropriations.

While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the president’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive. … As General [Jim] Mattis [and now Secretary of Defense] said prophetically, slashing the diplomatic efforts will cause them to have to buy more ammunition. There is [sic] two sides to fighting the problem that we’re in: There is military and then there’s diplomatic. And we can’t afford to dismantle the diplomatic half of that equation.”[The Washington Post]

House and Senate members of the president’s party have found a lot not to like. Favored programs and agencies would be cut, if not eliminated, on the non-defense side of the ledger. Some Republicans have also criticized Trump’s trumpeted “10 percent” hike in defense spending as misleading and insufficient. The chairs of the Armed Services committees claim that in actuality the proposed increase is only three percent greater than what Congress funded for the current year. They want more. Then there are the Republicans whose firm ambition to reduce and ultimately end deficit spending is not served by the White House proposal. (The president’s new Director of the Office of Management & Budget, former House Member Mick Mulvaney, was in that camp just months ago.) Intentionally, the new president’s budget does not propose to change the existing multi-year agreement in law that sets an overall spending limit.

Suffice it to say that the Democrats see a document that is easy to oppose. They promise to leave to the majority party the job of approving some form of it, gladly wanting the GOP to be on the record as cutting popular programs. The minority party members already are positioning themselves as not responsible for a government shutdown should the GOP not have the votes to keep the government funded. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s statement warns, in so many words, “don’t count on us to help pass your budget.”

If Republicans insist on inserting poison pill riders such as defunding Planned Parenthood, building a border wall, or starting a deportation force, they will be shutting down the government and delivering a severe blow to our economy. [Chuck Schumer (D-NY)]

As telling as the 62-page White House document is, the skinny budget will be followed in May by something resembling a full budget with greater detail that should formally indicate, for example, if the Diesel Emissions Reduction Grant program is proposed for elimination and how much less would be available for Port Security Grants. The May document might also be expected to cover other crucial detail that budgets normally provide.

The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget notes that “by focusing only on discretionary spending, this budget effectively ignores 70 percent of spending and 90 percent of its growth over the next decade.” That is a reference, substantially, to the defense and national security portion of the Federal budget and the Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid entitlement programs.

As stated earlier, the slashing and shrinking of domestic Federal programs and agencies is proposed to benefit the Defense Department with a $54 billion increase, in addition to plus-ups for the nuclear program and border security. Nowhere in the budget document is there a reference to the substantial sums that various independent reports have identified as being in reach with the adoption of Pentagon reorganization and other efficiencies. Might that come later?

Last note, to complete the picture: The Trump blueprint for FY18 is accompanied by a supplemental request for the current FY17 that includes an extra $33 billion for the Defense Department, the border wall, and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

To read the Trump budget “blueprint” find it here. The 56th page has a table that provides a quick look as to how the proposed budget compares with current year levels.  Pbea

 

Making a Last, Lasting Maritime Policy Impression

In Congress, Federal Government, Legislation, MTS Policy, Ports, Transportation Policy on September 21, 2016 at 11:37 am

An earlier version of this appeared in the Deep Water Notes newsletter of the Connecticut Maritime Coalition.

Summer is coming to a close. The same might be said of the Obama Administration and the 114th Congress, both timing out at or soon after the end of the year. And, as of this writing, the 2016 presidential campaign ends in under 50 days. All of which means we are entering a familiar, but critical period in governing.

It is decision time for all. They ask themselves — What can we get done in the time remaining? What will be the lasting impression and effect of this congress, this presidency, this election?

I won’t try to speculate on the last of those. Besides, nary a whisper has been heard on the stump about the port/maritime sector. (Surprised? Not at all.) Instead, here are some thoughts on two matters pending and percolating in the two branches of government.

National Maritime Transportation Strategy.    From the start, some people scoffed at the idea of preparing such a document. The Maritime Administrator was sincere when he started a public thought-process in January 2014. It was to culminate, a year later, in a document that might give direction to US activity and, in the process, highlight policy areas that could use attention and support from the maritime community and policy makers. Not surprising, there was plenty of skepticism, doubting that higher-ups in the department and in the White House would care when the draft came their way and they picked up their red pencils.

For that matter, some organizations in the maritime sector itself were less than enthusiastic about assembling a national strategy document for reasons that 1) they alone would have to explain, and 2) frustrated the stakeholder discussion and drafting efforts at MARAD.

It doesn’t help if members of your core constituency are afraid of what might result or are so jaded that they don’t want to bother.

Today, the still unpublished document is nearing the end of the draft process. That is a hopeful characterization for a paper that has spent the last ten months in “interagency review” garnering three hundred or so comments, to which MARAD is responding, and then to go through the wringer again for one last review. With around 20 agencies and departments having some interest – whether direct or remote — in ports and maritime transportation, one imagines 20 red pencils worn to the nub.

In gestation for over two years, having gone through wringers, reviews, and collecting dust in offices where US maritime policy is little considered, it is anyone’s guess as to the document’s ultimate value for the port/maritime sector. The most that we, and Administrator Paul “Chip” Jaenichen, can hope for is that the final draft will be released for comment before the Administration loses its license to operate.

Put any skepticism aside. It would be useful to have a “maritime strategy” document circulating among the transition teams and the policy planners and makers of the executive and legislative branches starting in 2017.

If anything it could spark attention to a subject area that has been easily ignored and misunderstood at higher levels of government for far longer than the last eight years. Officials and their staff could benefit by reading about the need for investing in ports, preparing the transportation system for the effects of larger ships, adapting to and adopting new technology, growing the domestic maritime service, preparing the next skilled workforce, and improving the port/maritime environment.

Those are consequential topics. That is what the document is about.

Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA 2016).   It is possible that Congress will complete action on a WRDA bill. The Senate last week passed its version (S.2848). On the other side of the Hill, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said the House version (H.R.5303) will have to wait until after the election when the legislators will reconvene for a lame duck session.

That is a disappointing delay for WRDA advocates but we can take some comfort in hearing both McCarthy and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) mention WRDA 2016 as something to get done this year.  Still, with no more than a week of legislative days left before the election break, and facing an unspecific period for what can be an unpredictable lame duck session, most anything can get in the way of bill completion.

Committee leaders want to demonstrate that they can send a WRDA bill to the White House just two years after the 2014 act, and in the process provide some biennial predictability to authorizing water resource projects like navigation and flood control improvements.

The port/maritime sector has a lot at stake in this bill, which would authorize the Corps of Engineers to undertake Portsmouth, Charleston, Ft. Lauderdale, and Brownsville channel improvement projects. Those ports have been waiting for this key step to be taken by Congress. If the bill dies this year, it could be another two years before the next one.

The House and Senate versions of WRDA 2016 contain a large number of policy provisions that would improve a burdensome Corps’ civil works process, strengthen the leverage of ports in the study and implementation phases of Federal navigation projects, and, eventually, improve channel maintenance funding.

The last and most consequential of those is a provision in the House bill that would lead to full use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and its user-paid Harbor Maintenance Tax revenues. It would enable something like direct funding of the Corps for maintenance work. For reasons explained by arcane congressional budget rules, the legislation would make that change effective eleven years hence.

Would it be worth the wait?

Put it this way: Ports have waited since 1986, when the HMT and HMTF were created, for maintenance of navigation infrastructure to be funded at needed levels, and for the trust fund to be taken “off-budget” and protected from being used to balance against deficit spending in the larger Federal budget.

Yes, it would be worth the wait.   Pbea

Holy Grail, PortMan!

In Congress, Efficiency, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Legislation, Ports, Water Resources on May 31, 2016 at 11:20 am

If you polled US port directors as to their major objectives in Washington, DC most would put at or near the top of their lists full funding, every year, from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. They would say, if a dollar is collected through the Harbor Maintenance Tax in a given year, then a dollar should be spent on maintenance dredging in ports large and small. One of the other things many would want to see is predictable, biennial water resource bills (WRDA) — say “wurda” — to advance navigation projects.

Well, this is your day, Mr. and Ms. Port Director!

The House Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (H.R.5303) is the timely followup to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (P.L. 113-121), and a hopeful return to a two-year cycle. It also would make it possible for for ports to realize the long desired full-use of the HMTF and the Corps of Engineers harbor maintenance program to be funded directly — as in do-not-stop-at-the-Appropriations-Committee.

But before you start counting long needed dredging dollars…there’s a catch. (We are talking about the congressional budget process, aren’t we?)  Too good to be true?  No….but there is a caveat to this good news. Let’s give it a name….call it “Delayed Port Director Gratification.”

Here’s the story.

Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, made it a priority to include in the new WRDA bill a provision that would shift the spending of HMTF resources from being in the discretionary category and subject to appropriations to being mandatory. It would mean less constrained budgeting by the Office of Management & Budget and more funding for channel and anchorage maintenance. Overtime, the underwater infrastructure would be more fully maintained to design dimensions. Around five years ago the Corps of Engineers estimated that sustained annual funding of $1,500,000,000 would keep American harbors adequately maintained.

Today even those Federal channels in major ports are not kept at their originally constructed depths and widths. Small harbors often get the short end of the spending stick and the resulting deferred maintenance means a decreasing ability to accommodate commercial and sometimes even recreation vessels. A few years ago the Corps of Engineers reported that almost 30 percent of commercial vessel calls at US ports are constrained due to inadequate channel depths. (Note: Peter DeFazio also included a provision for the small, “emerging” harbors.)

Congress has come to understand that while Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund monies are authorized for spending only for certain port navigation and administrative purposes, the low level of appropriations has resulted in an accumulating, unobligated balance approaching $9,000,000,000. The HMTF has been a convenient pot used by budgeteers to make the Federal deficit look smaller, not to make port channels more efficient. To their credit, House and Senate appropriators have gradually increased O&M funding to the point where the FY 2017 funding bills include $1,300,000,000. Still hundreds of millions of dollars short of meeting the navigation needs in US ports and full use of HMT revenue.

Such mandatory or “direct” spending as the DeFazio provision would make possible could put the trust back in the trust fund…eventually.

When “eventually?”

Eleven years from now….and for good reason.

The Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 requires that if Federal revenue is reduced, or spending is increased, it must be offset by a savings elsewhere or by new revenue. This was given the Monopoly game sounding name of PAYGO. A budget “score” indicates a proposal’s projected cost and that analysis has a ten-year horizon. If Congress were inclined to provide an immediate change in the HMTF statute to dedicate the full collection of the Harbor Maintenance Tax each year to be spent fully on navigation dredging projects each year the House and Senate would have to come up with ten years of replacement revenue for the Treasury.

However, if a change in revenue, such as the fencing of HMT receipts so they no longer would be blended with other Federal tax revenue, would become effective eleven years from now, that proposed change in the law would not require an offset under PAYGO. The House WRDA 2016 bill says it sweetly and simply:

Section 108(a). … [T]here shall be available to the Secretary [of the Army, who heads the Corps of Engineers], out of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, without further appropriation, for fiscal year 2027 and each fiscal year thereafter, such sums as may be necessary…”

The need for an offset is what has discouraged committee action to fix the HMTF in the past. Bill sponsors have largely left unspecified how to cover that multi-billion dollar cost…as a detail to be addressed at another time.

Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, introduced the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Reform Act (S.2729) last March. Their bill takes the immediate gratification route, both to address the “full use” issue and to address complaints among some of the large ports that have benefited little by current law.

The senators’ Seattle and Tacoma ports require little harbor maintenance funding and much the same is true in the San Pedro Bay ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. S.2729 would redirect some trust fund resources to certain needs in those ports.

I will go into the Murray-Cantwell bill in greater detail in another post. Suffice it to say that by not waiting patiently for eleven years to roll around the bill likely would require an offset of 10 x $1,600,000,000, to use current year revenue as an example. The odds against finding consensus in Congress on how to raise/save $16,000,000,000 is enough to eventually discourage most any optimistic lawmaker.

The provision in the recently adopted WRDA 2016 bill is credited to Peter DeFazio, who has the support and cooperation of Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), but a little history is worth noting. The objective of direct or mandatory spending from the HMTF and other infrastructure trust funds was an objective of this committee back when Bill Shuster’s late father, Bud Shuster (R-PA), was chairman of the committee and introduced the Truth in Budgeting Act.

What are the chances of the provision staying in the bill and becoming law? It’s hard to say. Even the delayed gratification strategy will run up against opposition in Congress and the Executive Branch. I expect it will hear objections from the Appropriations and Budget Committees. The former would likely would lose jurisdiction and the latter just doesn’t like mandatory spending even if it is secured by a dedicated tax or user fee. The White House Office of Management & Budget thinks similarly. Long considered the fiscal and policy nemesis of the civil works program, OMB will have a hard time dealing with the idea of the Corps getting its hands on more money. (Legislative Trivia: the House Budget Committee that in a separate report made its arguments against Bud Shuster’s Truth in Budgeting bill was chaired by John Kasich (R-OH)).

To be clear, there are legitimate arguments to be made against making spending from the HMTF mandatory, but if one is looking for a solution to the long-standing problem of under investment in the maintenance of the nation’s navigation system one finds no other practical options.

Okay, so the DeFazio provision will encounter opposition, perhaps debilitating opposition, in the next months. For the moment let’s focus on who will like the policy change represented by the DeFazio provision. Those are the port directors. Also port authority commissioners, maybe some elected municipal officials, governors, and of course, the industries and other stakeholders who depend on reliable harbor maintenance. They will have to make themselves heard on the issue if it has a chance of staying in the bill.

And if it succeeds in becoming law, they will just have to wait until 2027, knowing that the wait will be worth it.  Pbea

DPW Redux?

In Congress, Politics, Ports, Transportation Policy on May 12, 2016 at 10:50 pm

The trade press is reporting that a majority of shares of Ports America may be acquired by a corporation in Turkey, Yilport Holding Inc. The Istanbul-based corporation is part of a multi-industry holding company, its owner also a major investor in the French CMA CGM container shipping line, acknowledged the talks are occurring. Taking control of a major US terminal organization with around 40 operations around the country, would be a big move as compared to the UAE-based Gulftainer’s purchase of a small container terminal at Port Canaveral a few years back.

A better, if not perfect, analogy of a Mideast-based business making a move on a US MTO/stevedore would be the ill-fated move by DP World in 2006 to take over P&O Ports. At a time when American port security in a post-2001 world was still a very active subject in Washington the credible Dubai Ports World ran afoul of Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and others of both parties in Congress, including then-Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY). Claims were made that it was a potential foot-in-the-door by a state-owned organization from a region that sponsored terrorism. The rhetoric was hot. The subject was raw meat for never-too-tired-to-talk radio.

P&O Ports had approved the acquisition and the transaction involving port leases required Federal government review and clearance by Treasury’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). Despite those approvals, and the strong support of the George W. Bush White House, the issue became such a political firestorm — involving an industry little understood in Congress, it should be noted — that in the end DP World withdrew, selling P&O Ports’ American operations to AIG. (As it happens, those terminals eventually came under the Ports America name.)

A second, unfortunate casualty of the blowup was the Bush administration’s candidate to be Maritime Administrator. The respected David Sanborn had the doubly bad luck of 1) having his nomination considered in the Senate in this same time frame and 2) being an operations executive of — yes, that’s right — DP World.

So is this another potential “DP World” should Yilport and Ports America do a deal? Maybe not. Turkey is a member of NATO and a US ally, if not the best kind of ally, and more time has passed since that anxiety-filled first decade. But the situation does invite a recollection of a particularly crazy time here when the marine terminal industry and the international nature of the maritime sector were under the glaring, if not illuminating, lights of official US.

What is not especially evident is whether all that attention then led to a greater understanding of the industry today.

Word Searching the State of the Union

In Congress, Leadership, President, Transportation Policy on January 23, 2016 at 1:18 pm

President Obama’s annual State of the Union Address was an uneventful one for folks in the port and transportation business. That word, transportation, came up just once; port nary once. (It’s actually a game here in town to listen to see if a favorite topic is mentioned in the speech.  A colleague of mine downs a shot whenever he hears a key word uttered by the Chief Executive at the podium.

Interest groups lobby every administration to have an issue mentioned by the president as an indicator of his ambitions for the new year. Of course the odds for that happening are poor. And when it does, the mention does not always please.

I recall being less than thrilled when my home Port of New York-New Jersey was mentioned by Ronald Reagan in his annual address as having waste paper as a principal export commodity. His point was something about the country’s balance of trade, as I recall, but it was not America’s image that concerned me in that moment he was speaking to the nation.)

Back to this most recent SOTU, I noted that at one point Barack Obama uttered, “21st century transportation system.” However, no points were awarded (or drinks downed) as the phrase concluded a paragraph about investing in clean energy. Actually, the text reads as a bit of a nonsequitor, missing a connecting thought that his speech writers thought but didn’t write.  Here is the full paragraph:

Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy. Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future – especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.

Perhaps the president was referring to a carbon tax that would be used, among other things, to support transportation projects….or maybe he wasn’t.

If anything, here would have been the perfect spot to refer to the recently enacted surface transportation bill that he sought, and signed, but apparently the subject was not deemed sufficiently important to take eight or so seconds to say how he and Congress actually got something done. A joint session is a terrible thing to waste. (Apologies to “the mind.”)

After all, it was a fresh memory of just a few weeks since Congress rushed the significant FAST Act to the president. Politico asked some of the transportation leaders in Congress if they were miffed by the non-mention.  Yes, they responded, and if not miffed, then disappointed.

The speech did include two references to trade related topics, which can have some meaning for port people who wanted AT LEAST SOMETHING said having to do with portstuff.

That’s how we forged a Trans-Pacific Partnership to open markets, protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia. It cuts 18,000 taxes on products Made in America, and supports more good jobs. With TPP, China doesn’t set the rules in that region, we do. You want to show our strength in this century? Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it.

Fifty years of isolating Cuba had failed to promote democracy, setting us back in Latin America. That’s why we restored diplomatic relations, opened the door to travel and commerce, and positioned ourselves to improve the lives of the Cuban people. You want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere? Recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo.

Those have value to ports. Some ports have lined up behind the White House agenda for TPP approval, as has the American Association of Port Authorities, and indeed the Administration is asking port agencies and everyone else to make their support known on Capitol Hill where the negotiated, multilateral agreement faces an uphill battle for the consent of the Senate. Likewise, some ports, particularly those in the Gulf and South Atlantic, have worked for years to develop relationships in Cuba to be positioned well for a resumption of commercial relations. The Administration’s reconciliation initiative was welcome news to US exporters and gateways.

Both of those issues — TPP and Cuba — are ones that have the business community and the White House working as allies and a number of Democrats siding with Administration opponents.

So, there you go…a few words in the speech to note, but just a few. Is your favorite issue found in the 2016 State of the Union Address?   Pbea

Stormy Washington

In Congress, Federal Government, Politics, Washington, DC on January 21, 2016 at 12:35 am

Folks here are talking about actual weather, not metaphorical meteorology of the sort that can be a useful device when writing about Official Washington rhetoric and policy e.g., windy, hot air, foggy, drought…not to mention the occasional political lightning.

No, this is the lots-of-wet-snow kind.  Ninety percent chance of a few inches. Fifty percent chance of 12 inches. Maybe even a couple feet. “Colossal storm to unload a foot of snow from DC to Philadelphia, NYC” is the Washington Post weather page headline, that hours later could be modified in either direction depending on which predictive model is finding favor. I may wake up tomorrow to find the weekend storm will be Very Colossal or just Sorta Big. The fearful watch for snow passes for excitement in this Mid-Atlantic town. (What do you mean you’re out of snowblowers? You’re Home Depot, for godsakes!)

The snow starts here during the morning commute on Friday. The Nation’s Capital doesn’t manage heavy snow very well. We’re taking odds on the government sending people home even before they get to work. Get ready to hear spinning tire much of the day and night hours, and see sidewalks whose residents wouldn’t think of getting ankle deep in the wet stuff to shovel when the sun will eventually do it for you. (Wanna bet when the District’s downtown streets finally get plowed?)  Ah! Winter in Washington!

Then there is the financial storm front, forecast as likely to be of historic dimensions, that has been battering that other center of American power — Wall Street. Instead of snowfalls the headline is “Dow Falls.” The price of oil is sending economic shock waves through new and old producing states and here as well. Speculation has begun that the Federal Reserve will eventually be drawn back into a resumption of quantitative easing policy or some other response that confirms an economy in reverse gear. (You see! Obama is making things worse for American producers by lifting sanctions on Iranian oil.) The multiple committee oversight hearings are inevitable…for starters.

Let’s not leave out that other major disturbance now forming in the early primary states. Talking heads and party leaders are acknowledging the growing odds that political disruptors can win the party nominations. If it’s not Trump it’s Cruz. And what does that mean for the other Republicans on the ticket? Will Democrats regain the majority? Panic is setting in. (Jeb!)

Claire McCaskill (D-MO) resorted to using a “hammer and sickle” reference when talking about Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) as he grows stronger against her candidate, Hillary Clinton…who sent her daughter out to make specious claims against Sanders and worked the other end of the spectrum by suggesting that the Brooklyn-born Sanders is reliably doing NRA’s bidding. (Did she actually say that!) The patently silly talking point — to which Sanders responded by proudly pointing to his D- grade on the NRA report card — put quizzical faces on half the bronzes in Statuary Hall.

Then there is Donald Trump who yesterday said that there could be a place in his administration for Sarah Palin.

Washington is on its way to becoming a psychological mess.  Pbea

Politicians and the Pope

In Congress, Federal Government, Leadership, Politics on September 22, 2015 at 9:08 am

Occasionally I stray from strictly MTS matters. An historic appearance by the Bishop of Rome before a joint session of Congress–Mons Vaticanus to Capitol Hill–is as good an excuse as any to stray.

Today Pope Francis arrives in Washington. The advance logistics resemble those for presidential inaugurations. Security and transportation implications (“get ready for some epic traffic jams!”), with visitors in the hundreds of thousands predicted, are such that I and many others will be somewhere other than in the District of Columbia for the remainder of the week. Roll Call reports (“Members Will Be Blocked 2 Ways From Touching Pope Francis”) that “[O]ver-the-top precautions are a reflection of the unique protocol, security and political concerns attendant to the first papal address to a joint meeting of Congress. It has come to resemble a state visit, State of the Union address and presidential inaugural rolled into one.” The U.S. Office of Personnel Management has reassured us that the “Federal Government in the Washington, DC, area will remain ‘OPEN’ during these 3 days” but “to help alleviate traffic congestion and minimize distraction to law enforcement and security officials, agencies are urged to permit employees to use their workplace flexibility options,” such as teleworking.

The pope’s deep footprints will be left all around town — on the Hill, at the White House, in the NW sector where he will reside, and in places of worship for the faithful and of shelter for the homeless. Whether you are an observant Roman Catholic or not, Pope Francis’s visit here will be something to see, if only on the screen at home. How will this significant and inspiring religious figure affect the significant and sometimes uninspiring (and secular, politically speaking) elite of this town? The political press have an opinion, of course.

“Republicans want to use Pope Francis’s visit to Congress this week…to highlight their opposition to abortion rights. Democrats…hope the pope will lend new momentum to their efforts to address climate change, reform immigration law and win public approval for a nuclear deal with Iran. Papal experts say Francis’s address to a joint session of Congress Thursday [likely will be] more of a headache for Republicans.”

Yes, the GOP leadership’s focus on Planned Parenthood funding neatly coincides with his visit but the pope, whose schedule includes spending time with the have-not population in this town, also will be associated by the Dems with their present push to ease the 2011 budget caps on non-defense spending including programs to help the disadvantaged.

Pope Francis, who said in 2013 that “a good Catholic meddles in politics,” also issued an encyclical about man’s contribution to global warming, endorsed the Iran nuclear deal, and announced that Cuba would be his last stop before the US — all since Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), a Catholic, made the invitation to address Congress.

Ultimately, Washington is the nation’s political capital and so among the many thousands of the faithful who are expected to be here this week will be The Politician. We will see both parties’ selective scoring of the pope’s visit and we will watch Capitol Hill — and the president — make whatever they want out of the historic visit. Some assessments are already being heard and, judging by the reports, Republicans are especially quotable.

“I think we know the pope’s views on [abortion] and he’s right in that instance,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX).

“I just think the pope was wrong,” said NJ Governor Chris Christie with reference to the pope’s views on US and Cuba relations. “The fact is that his infallibility is on religious matters, not on political ones.”

“When the pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician [with respect to climate change], then he can expect to be treated like one,” wrote Paul Gosar (R-AZ), who said he will boycott the address.

“The pope has become a political football,” as The Hill reports, but, as we have seen in the last few years, and may see this week, Francis is quite the political athlete himself.   [Above unlinked quotes from The Hill]   Pbea

Port Performance Under the Microscope

In Congress, Labor, Legislation, Ports on September 1, 2015 at 5:07 pm

I last wrote of how Washington policy makers and agencies grew more interested in the port sector and how ports, small and large, benefited by that attention. So let’s consider some recent and largely unwelcome attention.

The messy, prolonged West Coast contract talks and negotiating tactics that resulted in a dysfunctioning supply chain at the waterfront elicited a strong and prolonged backlash from the importers, exporters and others whose own operations depend on reasonably well-functioning ports. (“After all, shippers crave certainty, and they crave reliability,” the recently released Pacific Maritime Association annual report acknowledges.) Not that the shippers were taken by surprise. With the 2002, ten-day shutdown of the ports fresh in mind, they expected the worse and were diverting some cargo to gateways of other coasts (or countries) months into the talks.

You are familiar with the recent history. The talks between the PMA and International Longshore and Warehouse Union started in May 2014. A year later the ILWU rank and file gave the new contract its final approval. In between is where it got interesting and “port congestion” came to be reported in main stream media. Management pointed to the intentional shorting of the workforce by union leadership. The union countered saying the terminals brought the problem on themselves by not being prepared for big ships with more cargo. In any event, port congestion was amplified at the largest Pacific gateways.

Export apples were not making it overseas markets in time. Retailers decried the slow flow of their freight from ship to gate and finally to shelves. But first the ship had to get to berth. By February, when the tentative agreement was reached, there were over 30 ships waiting at anchor off Los Angeles and Long Beach. POLA executive director Gene Seroka told the Wall Street Journal that he expected “it will be about three months before we return to a sense of normalcy.”

Over the nine months that the negotiations were underway the cargo interests were active and vocal. A coalition of companies and trade associations formed and periodically met with and issued joint letters to policy makers. They asked for intervention or at least for official Washington to pressure negotiators to make it quick. Their major complaint over time was that President Obama was just, in the White House’s word, “monitoring,” not acting. Members of Congress eventually expressed their concern about the effect of the prolonged talks.

Meanwhile the Port of Portland had its own particular low productivity problem where a continuing multi-year dispute, if anything, wasn’t helped by the prolonged contract talks. By February, a frustrated Hanjin Shipping announced it would end service there, leaving Portland and its ICTSI terminal operator in search of a willing container line.

Leading up to and long after the conclusion of the contract talks the shipper community lobbied for “a tool that will help provide certainty to future negotiations.” Letters seeking legislation to provide that tool typically would carry over one hundred organizations’ names. Some bills eventually were introduced. But from the perspective of most ports, the bill represents more problems than potential solutions.

Congressional advocates for the cargo interests have taken two approaches in their legislation. The first to emerge was the “Port Performance Act” (S.1298) by Senator John Thune (R-SD). He chairs the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee that eventually approved the measure. Noting that the port sector had yet to be plumbed for the sort of “condition and performance” data that Congress and transportation planners say are needed to better evaluate the national freight system, Thune’s bill prescribes the annual collection of monthly terminal operations data. It’s the sort of data that terminal operators keep for themselves to improve terminal functions and that port authorities are reluctant to have out there to be used by the competition. In the version that ultimately was approved as a provision in the Senate’s surface transportation bill is the requirement for data on vessel, train and truck time in port, lifts per hour, and cargo dwell time. Those and other metrics are required to be used for the annual reports to USDOT.

What is not in the Senate-passed bill is a provision, original to S.1298, that would require monthly reports of port performance data to USDOT and Congress during collective bargaining periods when contracts have expired. Organized labor and ports don’t like the bill and the unions lobbied especially hard to have that particular provision excised.

The other type of bill that was introduced—first in the Senate and more recently in the House—would amend labor law. Whereas Thune’s Port Performance Act is premised in part on the idea that data would be useful in documenting when port cargo operations and cargo interests suffer during contract negotiations, the other legislation is to provide a means to engage the government and the courts in bringing closure to prolonged negotiations i.e., a market for that data.

Freshman Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) introduced his “Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit of Shipments (PORTS) Act” (S.1519) to amend the Taft-Hartley Act to make slowdowns an unfair labor practice and empower governors to initiate boards of inquiry and seek court injunctions. (The House version was introduced in July by Dave Reichert (R-WA) and others.)

Senator James Risch (R-ID) takes a somewhat similar approach to the Gardner bill, with added inspiration from the Portland terminal operator who wants parties responsible for slowdowns to be penalized. Risch’s “Preventing Labor Union Slowdowns (PLUS) Act” (S.1360) makes slowdowns an unfair labor practice, defines slowdowns, declares US policy as one to “eliminate the causes and mitigate the effects” of port disruptions, and prescribes penalties for violators including decertification of labor organizations.

So what are the prospects for these bills in this Republican-led Congress? Amendments to labor law are sought by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. While the former has solid majorities in both chambers, the latter is in a position to slow and stop bills in the Senate where 60 votes routinely are needed to assure passage of just about any bill of substance. We may see hearings on the PORTS and PLUS Act legislation, and we definitely will see GAO reports—already requested—on the economic consequences of the West Coast talks. But between the Senate rules and the Democrat in the White House (see Secretary Perez comments), those bills will have trouble becoming law, perhaps even getting floor time in Congress.

Thune’s Port Performance Act is quite another matter. The diluted version of the bill passed the Senate, tucked away in the 1024-page, appropriately labeled DRIVE Act (H.R.22). It is the Senate’s version of a must-pass highway and transit bill. Key House legislators have yet to weigh in on the issue of port performance metrics and data collection, much less produce their own 6-year transportation infrastructure bill. Some action on the larger bill is inevitable, perhaps to the point of becoming law.

When the House side takes up the question, cargo interests will again point to the West Coast experience and seek restoration of frequent data reporting during contract talks. Port interests will explain why the Thune language is generally impractical and unwelcome. Labor will ask the House transportation leaders to flatly oppose the entire Port Performance section that is in the Senate passed bill.

More to come on this matter of the performance and condition of ports, and how and whether to measure it.   Pbea

Ports Then, Ports Now

In Congress, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Ports, Surface Transportation Policy on May 4, 2015 at 10:08 pm

Not all that long ago U.S. ports—principally through the public port authorities—were minor and largely absent players in the Federal transportation policy discussion. Port authorities and marine terminals engaged attorneys who tended to the infrequent channel project and to regulatory matters before Federal commissions. Seaports were (and still are) creatures of states and municipal level government. There was no Federal funding to speak of. Ports were assisted in the form of navigation channels constructed and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through the Civil Works program—a program in the control of legislators, who reserved the authority to approve projects, and engineers, who were told to implement the projects. Even in the case of port channels the appropriated sums did not go to port authorities but were cycled within the Federal government and to its contractors.

Back then U.S. maritime related policy was tightly focused on promoting U.S. flag shipping, American shipyards and American crews. Ports were in a policy no-man’s-land between the water and land modes. In its early years the U.S. Department of Transportation had maritime jurisdiction through the U.S. Coast Guard. USDOT was all about building the interstate highway system and tending to railroads, aviation and mass transit. It was not until 1981 when the Maritime Administration moved into USDOT after 31 years in the Commerce Department. Even then the agency continued to be concerned with vessels, not ports and harbors.

By 1980 only a handful of ports had need for Washington representation focused on Capitol Hill and transportation programs and policy, beyond that provided by the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA).

The 1980s were a time of change. Transportation regulation was giving way to forms of deregulation. By the close of 1978 we saw deregulation take hold; railroad, motor carrier and aviation policies were being reshaped. At times ports were very interested stakeholders as Congress ushered in deregulation. If anything, they wanted to be assured of sufficient rail service, preferably the competitive kind. The Shipping Act of 1984 took the maritime sector a few steps toward deregulation, with some implications for harbors, but greater reforms had to wait until the Ocean Shipping Act of 1998.

It was not until the mid-eighties that ports entered the center ring of Washington policy deliberation. Most of the Carter and Reagan years constituted a legislative dry spell for water resource bills. Ready plans for navigation improvements and proposed feasibility studies awaited action. “User fee” had a certain cachet in the Reagan years. The message to Congress was clear: in return for the president’s willingness to sign a projects bill some reforms would be required and Federal project costs would be offset. Local project sponsors would have to share the cost of improving channel projects. Port users would have to cover a substantial portion of Federal channel maintenance costs. Defining who was to pay, and how much, divided ports into two opposing coalitions. It was not a lasting split but it highlighted differences among the harbors, their physical characteristics, their cargo volume, and their cargo kind.

The resulting Water Resources Development Act of 1986 was landmark legislation that reset navigation and other water resources policy. It also triggered an awareness on the part of ports to be present and active in Washington, both through individual representation and associations.

In the 1990s the Department of Transportation developed an interest in the port sector and the condition of water and land access routes to marine terminals. The department’s jurisdiction did not include the system of channels–and the Corps of Engineers jealously guarded that historic jurisdiction–but it rightly saw the importance of efficient access to the port facilities regardless of the mode taken. Moreover, port and other freight interest groups collaborated in calling on policy makers to give their attention to freight mobility.

In 1991 Congress enacted surface transportation legislation–its prior iterations known simply as “the highway bill”–and in doing so finally adopted intermodalism as a desirable direction for policy. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 did not create an avenue for Federal aid for port facilities but it did hint at a line that would be crossed years later, when Federal dollars helped make improvements inside the terminal gates. The ISTEA sausage-making experience inspired trade groups to form the Freight Stakeholders Coalition. In the twenty-five 25 years that followed the coalition celebrated some successes and today is still at work looking to strengthen Federal freight infrastructure policy.

One of the first intermodal efforts by USDOT, in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board, was to examine the state of access to ports by the land modes. TRB’s 1993 report, Landside Access to U.S. Ports was followed the next year when the ISTEA-created National Commission on Intermodal Transportation published its report, Toward a National Intermodal Transportation System. The case was being made with evidence mounting. In 2000, the results of another congressional mandated study was reported by USDOT on National Highway System Intermodal Connectors. Freight infrastructure as it led to and departed from marine terminal areas was in poor condition. Actually doing something about it had to wait a while longer for SAFETEA-LU (2005) and MAP-21 (2012).

One other marker along the policy path deserves mentioning. In 1997 Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater initiated a look into what he referred to as the “marine transportation system,” which by definition is port-centered and extends beyond the terminal gate to include the access modes and intermodal operations. USDOT convened stakeholder sessions in port cities and then a national conference on the MTS. The resulting 1999 report–An Assessment of the U.S. Marine Transportation Systemincluded recommendations, among them the facilitation of landside access to ports and the formation of an interagency Committee on the Marine Transportation System and a stakeholder Marine Transportation System National Advisory Council. Those and certain other recommendations were implemented and have contributed to improvements in both freight operations and the port policy discussion.

In September 2001 the rationale for port security measures was instantly revised, making it so much more than a matter of smuggling and cargo theft. Securing both the ports and vessels took on an urgency that made for a sharp learning curve for government and private sector alike. A ship entering a port represented a new vulnerability for the U.S. For a start, Congress produced the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002. The Coast Guard was given new responsibility, multi-stakeholder port security committees were formed, and facility plans were required. Fences and cameras went up where there had been none. The Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) was created for the maritime sector. The Port Security Grants Program was created and before long it was funded annually at $400 million, the dollar level being a particular success of the ports’ American Association of Port Authorities.

Then, in 2009, the severe recession prompted the new administration and Congress to formulate an economic stimulus package that included a $1.5 billion dollar competitive grant program for “shovel ready“ construction projects. What came to be called TIGER grants were awarded not just for the usual road and transit systems but also to ports and heavy rail. Freight related projects snared a third of the grants to the surprise of everyone including the folks at USDOT who realized that freight investments could be evaluated in cost/benefit terms more readily than Biden in Charlestonthe usual stretch of highway or transit rail. To date, TIGER grants have gone to 24 port projects in 16 states for a total of over $344 million in Federal funds alone.

Today the Federal government takes great interest in ports. They are seen as vital gateways for U.S. exports and critical modal connectors that when not functioning well can diminish American competitiveness. They are potentially vulnerable to terrorist attacks and are bell-weathers for our economic well-being. And they make impressive backdrops for politicians.

In 1985 I convened a meeting of a few port lobbyists to talk about shared issues. Thirty years later, a considerably larger Washington Port Reps group continues to meet and discuss a much larger issue agenda.  Pbea

(Thank you, Lillian Borrone and Jean Godwin, for your memory-jogging assistance.)