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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.)

Much Ado About a Budget Resolution

In Congress, Infrastructure, Ports on March 31, 2015 at 12:31 am

At 4:24 am last Friday the Senate called it a night (or morning). Shortly before, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” quit deliberating, bringing its “vote-a-rama” session to a merciful end. “Deliberation” doesn’t apply very well here. When the Senate takes up its annual budget resolution and an around-the-clock offering of amendments it is anything but “long and careful consideration or discussion,” as defined in Oxford.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) coached visiting constituents on Wednesday morning that this was great time to see the Senate from the gallery. The senator was right to the extent that one doesn’t often get a chance to see a majority of Members on the floor for an extended period of time. As promised, she and her colleagues were there touting and voting on amendments to the FY 2016 Budget Resolution in a rare display of a constant quorum in search of a budget framework. Probably more than a few of them were also in search of an expeditious deliverance from what at times has the appearance of an exhausting, even pointless, legislative exercise.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 11 is serious business, much like its cousin, H. Con. Res. 27, which on Wednesday the House of Representatives dispatched in far fewer bleary-eyed hours. When/if the process is concluded, the Congress will have a single congressional budget resolution—no White House signature needed, thank you—that sets enforceable limits on appropriations in broad categories, e.g. transportation, for the next fiscal year. It is a budget discipline that Congress created in 1974.

In this case, both chambers and their Republican majorities last week produced resolutions that maintain the increasingly constrictive caps and the across-the-board cuts of sequestration of the infamous Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA). Both resolutions project balanced budgets in ten years. Both put downward pressure on spending for  non-defense and defense discretionary (non-entitlement) programs. But both, ultimately, also create exceptions so as to boost defense spending above the BCA ceiling that John McCain (R-AZ) called “reckless” and “a disasterin his attempt to end the grip of sequestration on the DOD side of the ledger.

There are differences between the Senate and House resolutions, which may be resolved in conference between the two budget committees.

So, you might ask, what exactly is a “vote-a-rama” in the US Senate?” In large part, it is a chance for a large number of amendments to be taken up in a short amount of time. Everybody, in theory, has the opportunity to shape the broad framework for spending. Well, not really. It might better be described as rapid-fire amendments so one can go on record—or put the other guy on record—for or against something. Standard Senate rules are put aside for purposes of budget resolution consideration. No chance to spend 20 minutes airing an issue or in orderly exchanges with a colleague over some weighty matter. Instead, senators mostly were asked to vote on vaguely worded issue proxies that have little practical effect on spending decisions or the issues themselves.

Serious subjects may be raised but a senator has a minute to state her case, assuming her amendment—one of nearly 800 introduced—is among the few that actually get floor time. Some are approved without objection, others rejected or agreed to by recorded vote. Some are withdrawn—the point already made—or ruled out of order.

Susan Collins (R-ME) said “the process gets misused just to make the other side cast uncomfortable votes,” adding that “the budget should be a serious process…” One didn’t have to look far for a handy example, this one covering two political hot buttons in one amendment. A senator wanted to “establish a spending-neutral reserve fund relating to limiting the ability of Environmental Protection Agency personnel to carry guns.” The italicized phrase is the common form used in the amendments, helping make it pertinent to the budget resolution and within its dollar limits.

Where any subjects of relevance to the port/logistics world proposed in the wearying session last week? Yes.

Two proposed amendments were inspired by the recent West Coast longshore talks and slowdown. One was by Deb Fisher (R-NE) relating to a request that has been (or will be) made for the GAO to investigate “the impact of service disruptions at West Coast ports during 2014 and 2015.” The other was by Cory Gardner (R-CO) with the notion “to prevent labor disputes at seaports in the United States from causing national economic disruptions and crippling businesses across the United States.” Neither would have practical effect beyond perhaps establishing Senate sentiment as to what took place during the longshore negotiations. (No vote)

Deb Fisher, chair of the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security Subcommittee, and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), ranking Democrat on the Environment & Public Works Committee, sponsored an amendment to “strengthen waterborne commerce in our ports and harbors, which may include increasing the percentage of the amounts expended from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund that are dedicated to port infrastructure and maintenance.” What does that mean? They associated themselves with the notion of increasing O&M spending from the HMTF. Nothing more. (Adopted)

A freight-related amendment by Dean Heller (R-NV) aspires to ensure that the DOT Secretary prioritize “the construction of projects that are of national and regional significance and projects in high priority corridors on the National Highway System…” (Adopted)

In the same vein, Cory Booker (D-NJ) sought to “encourage freight planning and investment that incorporates all modes of transportation, including rail, waterways, ports, and highways to promote national connectivity.” (Adopted)

A Gary Peters (D-MI) amendment related “to supporting trade and travel at ports of entry.” (Adopted)

Patty Murray (D-WA) called for increasing funding for the TIGER grant program. (Adopted)

Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) proposed one “to ensure high-income earners pay a fair share in taxes and to use the revenue to invest in repairing our Nation’s bridges, coastal infrastructure, and damage from wildfires.” (Withdrawn)

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) got a vote on his amendment relating to EPA regulation of “greenhouse gas emissions, which may include a prohibition on withholding highway funds from States that refuse to submit State Implementation Plans required under the Clean Power Plan of the Agency.” (Adopted 57-43)

Today EPA’s Gina McCarthy today said, no problem, Senator. “EPA doesn’t have the legal authority” to do that anyway.

Pbea

What Will This Congress Do?

In Congress, Infrastructure, Marine Highway, Politics, Ports, Security, Surface Transportation Policy, Water Resources on January 9, 2015 at 1:45 pm

Nearly a dime’s worth of days into the New Year, this is no time to rehash what happened in the last Congress. A new Congress—the 114th of our maturing nation—is now underway. And what a new Congress it is.

Republicans now rule Capitol Hill and veteran Senate Democrats are being reminded of how it feels to be called Minority. (Republicans have held the majority in the House and Senate more often than not in the previous 10 congresses, since 1995.) At the other end of the avenue is a president who has confronted more than his share of domestic and international crises. January is the starting gun for his latest test – working with the 114th Congress and its routinely unfriendly and uncooperative Republican membership. In that respect, so far, there is not much new about this Congress.

The leaders in the House and Senate themselves face internal and external challenges as they assume on behalf of their caucuses the collective role of governing. Politico used apt “cliff” and “landmine” metaphors for what faces Speaker Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as they advance legislation through their own caucuses. The leaders know that the GOP is well positioned to turn around the “do-nothing Congress” label that the Republicans made possible—even intended—over recent years. (Yes, the dethroned Harry Reid hardly facilitated the legislative process in the Senate but Messrs Boehner and McConnell are faced with colleagues in the rank and file who came to Washington to stand in the way of government. Twelve Republicans found reason to vote against returning Boehner to the Speaker’s chair, as if he is didn’t well serve the cause(s) of conservative Republicans.) This go-round Democrats, with little control over committees, the bills they produce, and the floor schedule, will not be plausible scape goats for a failure to legislate. And in the Senate McConnell may be 6 votes shy of a filibuster proof majority but he has a pool of moderate Dems and an Indie who are potential “ayes,” such as we will see with the upcoming Keystone XL vote.

The success of a legislature is measured by legislative productivity. Can this Congress be productive with the Obama White House, which has vetoed exactly two bills in the past six years?

As previously noted, President Obama also will be tested. How well he will deal with the new Congress, his constitutional partner in making law? No doubt we will see more vetoes in his last two years in office but his legacy will depend more on what is accomplished than what he blocked.

In other words, they need each other. Few points will be awarded if progress is not seen in Washington. So, the question is whether the president can find within him the resolve of Bill Clinton, who famously made lemonade out of the GOP blowout of 1994, and whether the Republicans will function as if they want to be remembered as the “did-something Congress.”

All of that is background to a rundown of just some of the issues and questions that are of interest to the port/maritime industry and the larger freight sector.

The president put his previously stated policy view into surprise policy action with his late December announcement on normalizing diplomatic relations with Castro’s Cuba. Any number of ports, exporters and others were pleased by the news. There is bipartisan support among some in the House and Senate but Congress will either come down hard on the White House initiative or, rhetoric aside and with an eye on what Castro might do in the months ahead, show a willingness to reconsider the long-standing trade embargo that can only be ended by a change in law.

Last year, Congress came close to hitting the “target” of spending $1.2 billion from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The enacted water resources law (WRRDA 2014) sets ambitious, incrementally higher targets for Congress to meet with funding for channel maintenance and other work authorized to be supported by trust fund monies. Will the Republicans, as the saying goes, “put trust back in the trust fund” or continue to allow the Harbor Maintenance Tax assessment on cargo to be used as general revenue applied against the Federal budget deficit?

Last year the House and Senate produced a “sense of Congress” statement generally in support of the US-flag and Jones Act sectors. It can be interpreted as reaffirming existing maritime policy. Around the same time John McCain (R-AZ) reaffirmed his own maritime policy to undo the Jones Act in a speech to the Heritage Foundation. He and the petroleum industry actively urge changes to current law, which is to say, the end of the Jones Act. Meanwhile the Maritime Administration and the Secretary of Transportation will steer a draft National Maritime Strategy through the policy and political wringers of the White House. What will that document say about Administration policy and what if anything needs to be done to improve the US merchant marine or American ports?

In 2015 Congress will have to tackle surface transportation policy and funding. Will it include real money to renew freight corridors and build new infrastructure to support modern, intermodal commerce? Will Congress bite the bullet and find the money to pay it or, for that matter, to save the failing Highway Trust Fund? Past refusal by Congress to tackle this issue has depressed road and transit funding and been a principal expression of austerity economics—advocated by most Republicans, but abetted by many Democrats who also have avoided new revenue proposals—during a time when the country was climbing its way out of The Great Recession. Should this Congress produce a transportation bill that only perpetuates an inadequate level of funding and papers over the structural deficiencies of Highway Trust Fund financing it will not make for a convincing accomplishment.

The issues that may arise in the new Congress are many. Committees are establishing their work plans for the year ahead. What will the Republican majority serve up in the way of budget cuts and appropriations? Will a uniform ballast water policy finally become law? Will the TWIC reader rule that seems to assume container terminals to be at a lesser risk be implemented without alteration? How will Title XI vessel financing fare and will marine highway policy wither from inattention? Will Congress see a Federal role in helping ports, cities and businesses plan for rising sea levels and assist in improving waterfront infrastructure for the coming decades? Will the Coast Guard prepare helpful guidance and rules on cybersecurity and will the industry actively engage in developing it? Will Federal policy foster clean fuel initiatives for the freight modes and encourage off-shore wind energy development? How will the committees answer shipper complaints about railroads? Will a Republican Congress and a White House Democrat come to terms on tax reform, infrastructure funding, and trade policy?

At bottom, how well do the legislators of the new Congress—both Republicans and Democrats—understand, and how will they respond to, these and other issues of relevance to the port/maritime sector?  Pbea

New Congress. New Maritime Policy?

In Congress, Leadership, MTS Policy, Politics on November 15, 2014 at 3:30 pm

As the first draft of this piece was being put to page some small percentage of voters were practicing their citizenship at the polls. The prospects for the Democrats, as a whole, were not very good. Ten days later, and as I now refine this text, the field still is being cleared of Election Day debris. Not just the sloppily pinned signs on the road medians but prognosticators’ tattered reputations and a few shattered incumbents were strewn on the political landscape in need of reclaiming. By far more than the paid pollsters divined in the weeks before November 4, the Republicans were handed the reins in Congress and a number of State Houses. The party consolidated its control of the House and leapt into the majority in the Senate with at least 53 seats and a net gain of eight. The final count awaits a December conclusion in Louisiana where GOP prospects in the run-off are good.

Public dissatisfaction with government in Washington is close to universal but for reasons I will leave to others to explain the Republican Party benefited substantially more than its competition and that will keep them in power, especially at state level, for several years to come. As if speaking for his fellow Republicans across the country re-elected Gov. Sandoval (R-NV) said, “This is a night to savor.”

By the numbers, incumbent US Senate Republicans will be vulnerable in 2016…but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The matter before us is the next two years of the 114th Congress.

This week the rank and file of both parties in both chambers opted to retain current leadership. Soon we will learn the names to inhabit chairmanships, ranking minority posts, and committee lists. Meanwhile, in the current lame duck session the legislature is expected produce appropriations to keep the government functioning through the fiscal year. They will decide whether the Keystone XL pipeline project should be started, and take up a few other must-pass items before bringing the 113th Congress to a close.

Long before Election Day the US-flag maritime community nervously eyed voter surveys because of what a possible Republican return to power in the Senate could mean. Now, the controlling party is known; how that majority will be reflected in maritime related legislation will be something to watch.

One can easily find Republican legislators who are considered friends of the US maritime industry, whether driven by interest in US-flag cargo preference policy, shipyard activity, the labor force, other sectors that benefit by existing policy, or just a sense of what a nation should say about its maritime capability, security, etc. But that doesn’t mean that the maritime community in Washington, DC was sanguine or unconcerned about the prospect of the GOP taking the lead in producing legislation. In fact, unions, shipyards, US flag operators and others with a stake in the status quo were in varying degrees of pre-election anxiety.

The community has been frustrated with the Obama Administration’s willingness to ease cargo preference requirements. Now, potentially as problematic, Republican legislators who, for philosophical or constituency reasons, have not been inclined to extend Ex-Im Bank authorization or fund cargo preference policy—both key issues for the US merchant marine—will have more influence in policy setting. Add to that the fact that congressional support for the Jones Act is lacking in some quarters where the marketplace is revered and shipper interests—including domestic petroleum producers—would exchange the US flag for lower vessel costs. Some ports hit hard by disruptive events and who need short term Jones Act waivers in order to manage logistics crises, may find some more receptive offices.

A few years ago Jones Act and US-flag interests started Maritime Industry Congressional Sail-In Day to lobby the Hill with a particular aim to educate legislators who are new to maritime issues. The old guard–those who recall there once was a House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, soon 20 years defunct—are nearly gone from Congress as a consequence of natural and electoral attrition. (The American maritime sector has suffered from attrition as well, with a reduced presence in international shipping and, in some respects, an aging Jones Act sector.)

More recent Republican additions to Capitol Hill are a decidedly more conservative population—some of them Libertarians and self-identified tea partiers—who are more market- and less government-oriented. They arrive in Washington with little knowledge of the American maritime tradition and even less of its policy and the rationale behind that policy. They read material from policy critics and, presumably, its advocates.

On the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee are Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) who, for example, have opposed reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank (“corporate welfare”) and could be in the mix to chair the subcommittee with jurisdiction over maritime policy. Veteran John McCain (R-AZ), the likely next chair of the Armed Services Committee, has a record of proposing the repeal of the Jones Act. Referring to a McCain quote in a Wall Street Journal blog, a union newsletter carries this heading: “Sen. John McCain Calls Jones Act’s National Security Benefits Laughable.”

Maybe change is coming, maybe not.  If anything, there is a good chance we will see more jousting on US maritime policy.   Pbea

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