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A Working Relationship (and Work in Progress)

In Federal Government, Ports, Security on October 11, 2017 at 10:22 pm

[This piece by colleague Steve Fisher, Executive Director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association, first appeared in Seaway Review (Summer 2017) under the title, “Learning to Love CBP.” As one might take from the title, a port’s development and commerce mandate and the Federal agency’s primary mission of security and enforcement are not naturally compatible. But on an operations level, it is a necessary partnership, faced with challenges, that the commercial and government sides must make work. And Great Lakes ports have their own particular challenges.]

In today’s post 9/11 security environment, every Great Lakes port must work closely with the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that our maritime gateways are not used for nefarious purposes. In this environment, a critical federal agency partner is U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

CBP is the largest law enforcement agency in the United States with more than 58,000 employees. The agency’s mission is to safeguard the nation’s borders and protect the public from dangerous people and materials while at the same time enabling legitimate trade and travel. The breadth of the agency’s activities is remarkable. Every day the agency handles more than 1 million passengers arriving into the United States, including more than 58,000 arriving by vessel. At the same time, each day the agency processes more than 79,000 shipping containers and $6.3 billion of imported goods.

The agency’s relationship with Great Lakes ports is an evolving one. New business trends are challenging both ports and CBP. This is particularly true of inspection-dependent activities such as processing cruise ship passengers and containerized cargo. Since the Port of Cleveland and Spliethoff launched the Cleveland-Europe Express container service in 2014, a number of other Great Lakes ports have been exploring shipment of containerized cargo. While the Port of Cleveland has put in place the required inspection equipment and facilities, most other ports have not. In response, CBP has put a halt to some projects.

Cruise passenger processing also requires specialized CBP-approved facilities. Most ports do not have these facilities. In recent years through the good work of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (SLSDC), an alternative on-vessel clearance program was designed in partnership with CBP utilizing mobile technology. Unfortunately, CBP now intends to sunset this program creating new challenges.

Beyond paying for proper CBP-compliant facilities and equipment, stakeholders have been slow to embrace the agency’s suggestion that staff time be reimbursed through enrollment in CBP’s Reimbursable Services Program. Some view this as paying for government services that ought to be supported by Congressional appropriations.

As CBP works to accomplish its mission, the agency has needs.  Nationwide, the agency is under staffed and under resourced.  For that reason, accommodating new port activity has been challenging for CBP’s Great Lakes field offices. Testifying before Congress, agency leaders claimed to be short 500 officers to work at maritime facilities. In January President Trump’s call for hiring 5000 new agents. With a current 6 percent workforce attrition rate, the agency would need to hire 2,729 new agents a year to reach the President’s goal within 5 years. The current hiring rate is approximately 500 agents a year and is slowed by a strict vetting process, including polygraph tests.

Clearly, CBP needs to be better funded and staffed.  Ports have met with Congressional committees and urged just that. To help address staffing challenges, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, has proposed legislation (S. 595) to waive polygraph requirements for applicant officers who previously served in domestic law enforcement or the Armed Forces. The American Great Lakes Ports Association formally endorsed this legislation as a common sense approach to increasing the trusted applicant pool.

Seaports and vessel operators also have needs. To their credit, they are working to launch or grow new business ventures and create jobs. However, like any start-up these ventures are initially modest and cannot support large investments in CBP required buildings, equipment and staffing. The seasonal nature of Great Lakes shipping presents additional challenges.

Herein lies the challenge. How do we help CBP accomplish its mission, while also facilitating the development of new commerce? The solution lies in a flexible approach achieved through dialogue, relationship building, and cooperative problem solving. The development of mobile technology for on-vessel processing of cruise passengers was an example of a flexible approach developed cooperatively. In early August CBP met with Great Lakes cruise stakeholders to begin work on a successor scheme. The workshop was hosted by CBP, the American Great Lakes Ports Association, the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, and the Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers. Groundwork was laid for developing a limited number of strategically located clearance facilities at select Great Lakes ports. In concept, these facilities will enable cruise itinerary planners to design voyages that satisfy their customers.

We all need to remember that CBP is an agency of police officers working every day to protect us and our families. Working in partnership, we can help each other accomplish our respective missions – to facilitate commerce and provide for homeland security.

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That’s What Friends Are For

In Congress, Federal Government, Leadership, Politics on August 31, 2017 at 12:06 am

If there’s going to be an historic flood in the United States that requires the full measure of Federal response and recovery assistance, it might as well be in Texas and neighboring Louisiana.

That’s not to wish such devastation on the property and people, many of whom will struggle to achieve normalcy over a too-long recovery. It is recognition that the oil and gas-rich Gulf region has more than fossil fuels going for it. It has government power in Washington and more BTUs of it than have most other parts of the country.

Let’s start with those House Members whose districts are in the generally affected region, some more affected than others. These are politicians who naturally will be attentive to the needs of troubled constituents. Many of them sit on useful committees. Many are ranking on subcommittees. Of course, the more senior the person, the more influence he or she also is likely to have. Then there are the senators, who by their office usually wield more power than their House counterparts. Showing them in numerical order of districts, their terms served, and significant committee assignments —

  • Ted Poe (R-2nd TX) is in his 7th term, on Judiciary, subcommittee chair on Foreign Affairs, and co-chair of the House PORTS Caucus.
  • John Culberson (R-7th TX) is in his 9th term, and a subcommittee chairman on Appropriations.
  • Kevin Brady (R- 8th TX) is in his 11th term, chairs the House Ways & Means Committee and is leading the drafting of new US tax policy, which President Trump claims as one of his very highest priorities.
  • Al Green (D-9th TX) is in his 7th term, and a ranking minority member on Financial Services.
  • Randy Weber (R-14th TX) is in his 4th term, on Transportation & Infrastructure, and a subcommittee chairman on Science.
  • Sheila Jackson Lee (D-18th TX) is in her 12th term, on Budget, and is a ranking minority member on Homeland Security.
  • Pete Olson (R-22nd TX) is in his 5th term, on Energy & Commerce, andco-chairs the Congressional Refinery Caucus.
  • Blake Farenthold (R-27th TX) is in his 4th term, a subcommittee chairman on Oversight & Government Reform, and on Transportation & Infrastructure.
  • Gene Green (D-29th TX) is in his 13th term, a ranking minority member on Energy & Commerce, and co-chairs the Congressional Natural Gas Caucus.
  • Brian Babin (R-36th TX) is in his 2nd term, on Transportation & Infrastructure, and chairs the Space Subcommittee that is important to the Houston Space Center.
  • Clay Higgins (R-3rd LA) is in his 1st term, on Homeland Security,
  • Mike Johnson (R-4th LA) is in his 1st term, on Natural Resources.

…………

  • Ted Cruz (R-TX) is in his 2nd term, and is on Senate Armed Services and chairs the Space Subcommittee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, which also has jurisdiction over the Coast Guard and other maritime matters.
  • John Kennedy (R-LA) is in his 1st term, on the Senate Appropriations, Budget and Small Business Committees, and served five terms as Treasurer of his State.
  • Bill Cassidy (R-LA) is a medical doctor in his 1st term and on the Senate Energy & Natural Resources and Finance Committees.
  • John Cornyn (R-TX) is in his 3rd term, is on the tax-writing Finance Committee, and is Majority Whip, the second highest Republican leader in the Senate.

Beyond John Cornyn’s considerable leadership post, certain of the above committees will or can prove useful in the weeks, months and years of the recovery, some more obvious than others. Appropriations, Agriculture, Armed Services, Transportation & Infrastructure, and Small Business stand out but even being on Energy and Homeland Security panels can be useful in times like these. Likewise, the tax-writing committees where revisions to the tax code are being drafted.

Needless to say, it also helps to be a Republican, from a Republican state, when the White House and levers of government also are in Republican hands.

As icing on the above layered cake, I will add to the list Members from other regions of Texas and Louisiana. In no particular order —

  • Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) chairs the Financial Services Committee that oversees the banking and investment communities and in September will be taking to the House floor legislation to reauthorize and amend the National Flood Insurance Program.  The timing couldn’t be better.
  • Pete Sessions (R-TX) chairs the powerful House Rules Committee that decides, with top Republican leadership, what bills and amendments are allowed to be considered by the full House.
  • Michael McCaul (R-TX) chairs the Homeland Security Committee that has jurisdiction over Federal emergency response programs and Customs & Border Protection, whose personnel have been on the front line of the response to Harvey and are important in port commerce recovery.
  • Steve Scalise (R-LA), who as House Majority Whip is the third ranking Republican in the House leadership. (He has been recovering from gunshot wounds suffered this spring in an attack on Republican Members.)
  • Garret Graves (R-LA) chairs the House Water Resource & Environment Subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the Corps of Engineers, whose engineering resources and funding are vital in clearing navigation channels, evaluating the structure of dams and levees, and studying improvements needed to better prepare the region for flood events.
  • Kay Granger (R-TX) chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Pentagon resources have been on display in rescue efforts.
  • John Carter (R-TX) chairs the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds the Coast Guard, FEMA and other DHS agencies in its jurisdiction.

It is an impressive list that doesn’t include some other members of the Texas delegation who have subcommittee chairmanships not useful to mention here. Nor, as is apparent, are there Democrats listed with top party leadership posts. There are none in those states. Nor, as a consequence of their minority status, do they have committee chairmanships.

I will add two other names to the considerable resources available to the people of Texas and Louisiana as they look for billions of dollars in assistance to address infrastructure, housing and other needs. The two are are Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. As Lyle Lovett might tell them, “You’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway.” Both men are from coastal and port states that know natural disasters and have relied on emergency Federal assistance and resources for rebuilding. They know the Defense Department, its Corps of Engineers, and other agencies intimately. They are not in ideological when it comes to appropriating funds at a time like this. They are not likely to equivocate when colleagues need immediate aid. Frelinghuysen’s statement was issued while it was still raining in Houston and Beaumont:

My Committee stands at the ready to provide any necessary additional funding for relief and recovery. We are awaiting requests from federal agencies who are on the ground, and will not hesitate to take quick action once an official request is sent.

The people of Texas and Louisiana have the support and prayers of presumably all Americans…but they also have the help of friends in high places. That will come in handy.   Pbea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Meeting of Agendas at the Metrics Meeting

In Federal Government, Labor, MTS Policy, Port Performance on July 20, 2016 at 2:11 pm

The Working Group that is to advise the Bureau of Transportation Statistics on port performance statistics metrics had a memorable first meeting. The panel consisting of Federal agency and stakeholder representatives — appointments that nearly comply with congressional direction — includes proponents and opponents of the notion that the Federal government should collect port performance data. They, and others who had stayed clear of the 2015 congressional debate that concluded with the creation of the Port Performance Freight Statistics Program, part of the surface transportation FAST Act, voiced their views, doubts and questions at the inaugural meeting.

Part of the day’s program was designed to get participants on the same page. While some of them may never agree on why or what data should be collected they could at least start working from a certain understanding as to terminology, what a port looks like, and how terminals operate. It was the task of consultants Daniel Hackett (Hackett Associates) and Dan Smith (Tioga Group) to provide tutorials. It was a lot to absorb. Especially for those at the table who spend little, if any, time in the maritime world.

The hour that Dan Smith spoke could have been doubled considering the volume and value of the information he shared on terminal configurations, the diversity of metrics used in ports, and other pertinent details. If anything, the Working Group members could start to appreciate the challenge presented by the congressional mandate that USDOT collect data employing uniform metrics in a sector where even the term “ton” comes in different forms and meanings. A hundred or so commercial ports, and many more marine terminals, operate in the US. Uniformity may be inevitable but it may take a while to get there.

Several people in the room — representatives for the railroads, a port, and organized labor — questioned why collecting port data was even necessary. John Gray of the American Association of Railroads started, matter of factly. “Just because Congress says go collect data doesn’t make it a good idea.” It was a view likely not shared by Senate staff in the room.

The shippers in the room — National Retail Federation, Lowe’s and Home Depot, at the table, and agriculture exporters in audience — represented the interest sector most responsible for the creation of the new port performance program. Advocates for an answer to what happened on the West Coast and for the industry and longshore labor to answer for it. The shippers who won seats at the WorkinHg Group table explained their need for transparency and reliability but seemed not to want to be the oft-heard advocates in the room.

Labor did.  The AFL-CIO, ILWU, and other union reps made clear their opposition to any data collection that oculd reflect on workforce performance.  Inevitably, it would be used by others during contract talks, they explained. (Of course, everyone at the bargaining table — unions and management alike — would already have every potentially useful statistic at their disposal.) Besides, they said, better infrastructure is where the need is, implying that port data are not useful in showing where inadequate infrastructure contributes to port congestion.

They reminded folks who knew the legislative history, and informed those who did not, of the original Senate legislation — the Port Performance Act. Inspired, as it was, by the slowed cargo on the West Coast during the 2014-2015 talks, and by appeals from the cargo interests, the bill’s authors wanted to mandate more frequent reporting of port performance data to Washington around the time of collective bargaining.

Labor representatives did not fail to note that a shippers coalition letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, sent after the bill became law, urged the collection of monthly figures on container lifts, a key KPI on workforce productivity. Labor pointed to it as evidence that, even though provisions on specific metrics and collective bargaining did not make it into to law, the shippers were persisting in urging USDOT to secure data that could be used to create legal or political pressure against the workers’ interest.

The unions were aided in discouraging consideration of crane-related metrics when, later in the meeting, POLA’s Gene Seroka and others said crane lift data was of questionable value outside of the terminal itself. As if to put a period on the issue, Lowe’s Rick Gabrielson said he does not care about the reporting of crane hours. Capacity is the issue.

Over the course of the day persons questioned the rationale for nationally collected port data but no one questioned the value of metrics used in addressing port terminal problems at the local level. Former Lowe’s executive Mike Mabry, now chair of MARAD’s Marine Transportation System National Advisory Committee, was one to ask how data would be used. He discouraged BTS collecting data just to have data. “You can drown in input metrics,” he said. What’s important is to know how the data would be used and then tailor a decision on metrics to that.

Congress told BTS to collect data that would help capture US port “capacity and throughput.” Port of Houston’s Roger Guenther asked rhetorically, and doubtfully, if private marine terminals would want to say what is their capacity. Alternatively, he said that a crucial metric for determining how well a port or terminal is functioning is how adequately it is staffed by Customs officers. Insufficient numbers of CBP inspection personnel contribute to terminal congestion and slowed throughput. Others concurred.

At a July 7, hearing the Port of Baltimore’s David Espie told House subcommittee members of the problems presented by inadequate Federal security support in the form of aging radiation portal monitors in need of replacement, unknown maintenance records, and overworked Customs officers.”CBP is very strapped,” said Espie. Low-level personnel work long hours at the RPMs and are “bored,” suggesting a morale issue.

At the BTS meeting the BCOs reiterated their statement of record, that there is no interest in comparing one port to another but rather a port’s improvement (or not) overtime. The railroads’ John Gray, experienced in working with industry numbers, observed that the intended use of collected data notwithstanding, once data is published it will be used by persons incorrectly if they would find that useful.

If there was something on which all folks at the table could agree it might have been that statistics can be helpful in bringing more investment, including Federal grants, to port-related infrastructure. Noting that in recent years ports have become eligible for Federal grants MARAD’s Lauren Brand said collecting port data would be helpful to convince policy makers that capacity requirements and other infrastructure needs warrant greater Federal investment. BTS’s Rolf Schmitt admitted that his agency knows the capacity of the highway system but has no knowledge of the American port system’s capacity. He could have added that some of the Republican bill’s wording came from the Obama Administration’s proposed Grow America Act to —

…authorize a port performance statistics program within the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to provide nationally consistent statistics on capacity and throughput for all maritime ports to assess performance for freight transportation planning and investment analysis; and require advice from major stakeholders who collect and use port information.

The other unavoidable fact is that BTS is under the gun to implement what Congress wrought in law. Former Massport executive director, Anne Aylward, managed well as meeting moderator. She patiently urged participants to “find areas of commonality” and “work with what is in the law now.” She invited the Working Group members, and those who were not at the table, to send, by August 1, initial ideas as to suitable uniform metrics and how the data could be collected.

The Working Group is to issue a final report to BTS by the December 4, statutory deadline. The respected statistical agency is faced with a challenge and must make its first report to Congress a month later. There’s no time to waste.  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

Measuring Port Performance

In Efficiency, Federal Government, Legislation, MTS Policy, Port Performance, Ports, Transportation Policy on January 26, 2016 at 4:35 pm

The issue of measuring port performance was a contentious one over the last half of 2015. Now that there is such as thing in law as the Port Performance Freight Statistics Program the action has shifted to what to do about it. USDOT — really the Bureau of Transportation Statistics — is tasked with implementing the new law that requires the collection of data to express throughput and capacity in ports. BTS is expected to anonymize the competitively sensitive data for public consumption and report annually to Congress.

Implementation will prove no less a contentious matter, at least among the interests who were most active as the bill was being debated and now hope to inform BTS decisions. Nor does it promise to be a simple task for the agency.

Helpful to BTS is that some of the original bill requirements as to specific metrics and stepped up data collection during collective bargaining was left on the legislative cutting room floor. (The Port Performance Act, S.1298, as reported from committee listed eight metrics that must be used — such as average container lifts per hour and average cargo dwell time — and then added another five data types to be reported monthly to Congress around the time of port labor contract negotiations.)

The final version frees BTS to assemble a program that, perhaps, a transportation statistical agency might consider valid for assessing both port condition and performance, both being information that the department wants to have on the total freight system. Port related metrics are a segment of supply chain data that BTS previously said it lacked.

Not so helpful to BTS is that the mandate to build a new program was not accompanied by money to pay for the effort. Indeed, the agency’s authorized annual budget limit for the next five years is $26 million as set by Congress in the FAST Act. That is less than the agency has been given in past year appropriations and less than the $29 million requested by the Administration. (The American Statistical Association provides this perspective: “$26 million is the same level of the BTS budget in FY05, which means BTS will see a 30% decline in purchasing power from FY05 to FY20 due to inflation.”)

The port performance program is not a simple matter to stand up. That was made patently clear recently when BTS held a session on the subject at the TRB Annual Meeting. The agency took advantage of the fact that Washington was temporarily populated with scads of transportation economists, planners, engineers, industry representatives, consultants and other data hounds. At this session labeled “Port Data Users Forum” Rolf Schmitt, Deputy Director of BTS, sat on the dais making notes on his laptop as he heard a variety of comments and issues from persons at the standing mic. Specific questions were posed to get responses from the 70 or so folk in the room.

  1. What are the different port types from which data would need to be drawn?
  2. How could they be ranked (given that the law calls for data from the top 25 ports as measured by TEUs, tonnage and dry bulk cargo but ranking would not be a simple as that might seem)?
  3. What are some widely accepted and used types of port statistics?
  4. What is the best way to measure performance to determine efficiency and productivity?

Dan Smith of The Tioga Group that has studied terminal productivity, Bruce Lambert of the Institute for Trade and Transportation Studies, Anne Aylward of USDOT’s Volpe Center and former Boston port  director, Paul Bingham of the Economic Development Research Group, and Anne Kappel of the World Shipping Council were among the knowledgeable persons who offered suggestions and cautions. The comments collected gave Schmitt plenty to chew on.

The folks at BTS were given some formal help by Congress. The new PPFSP (it being Washington we have to mine initials to mysteriously label programs) includes the formation of a temporary “working group” of Federal agency, stakeholder and other sector representatives to assist BTS in determining what metrics to use in data collection and how to go about getting the data. Those stakeholders and some other likely working group members were among the persons (I among them) who lobbied and competed for preferred legislative language. One might expect those opposing views to surface again in some form during the working group discussions.

In his opening comments Rolf Schmitt noted that while the legislation uses the “working group” phraseology — perhaps an attempt by bill writers to avoid mandating formation of a formal advisory committee under the Federal Advisory Committee Act — it will be a Federal Advisory Committee in every sense of the word. That means a formal process starting with a notice in the Federal Register, the writing of a charter, and a host of other administrative requirements. A rulemaking process also is necessary to complete the task of establishing the data collection program. Schmitt noted that Federal law says that agencies such as his must minimize the burden put on those affected by such rules. Always good to know.

There was no lengthy list of suggested metrics offered that evening by those at the microphone in response to the question that held the most interest. Cargo dwell time and rail turn times were mentioned and indicated as among data that the marine terminal would keep. Since many terminals are privately operated, port authorities are not in possession of that data and, as one person noted, that is especially true in ports where private terminals are not tenants of a port authority.

Truck turn times were also mentioned but, as another person noted, collecting turn times that include waiting outside the gate will require capital investments in measuring equipment. The Port of Oakland is experimenting with Bluetooth technology. On the previous day Reade Kidd, Home Depot’s Director of International Logistics, offered the opinion of probably most cargo interests that metrics should reflect berth, rail, yard and gate operations.

When the hour was up, Rolf Schmitt left the convention center, no doubt thinking he had more questions and problems to solve on leaving than when he arrived.  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