Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘Budget Process’

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

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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

The Murray-Cantwell Approach to Problem Solving

In Competition, Congress, Infrastructure, Intermodal, Water Resources on September 23, 2013 at 7:05 pm

This past week State of Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell introduced the Maritime Goods Movement Act of 2013 (S. 1905). Their inspiration for legislation came from what I have described as the unintended consequences of the Harbor Maintenance Tax, starting with complaints from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma that the Canadian competition to the north and the shippers, who are obliged to pay the Harbor Maintenance Tax when entering U.S. ports, were taking full advantage of the cost-differential where the HMT does not apply.

It is a complaint that was given some appearance of validity in a Federal Maritime Commission report issued last year and, a bit more convincingly, by data comparisons published by The Journal of Commerce last month.

At the request of the senators the FMC studied the role played by the HMT (0.125% of cargo value) in decisions to use the Vancouver and Prince Rupert gateways. The report, adopted by the FMC commissioners on a party line vote, didn’t make a strong case as to cause and effect. It did suggest that if an equivalent of the tax were applied in Canada “a portion of the U.S. cargo…likely would revert to using U.S. West Coast ports.” The report concluded by suggesting any remedy is in the hands of Congress not the regulatory agency.

The JOC looked at the issue by comparing market share within the PNW and among U.S. West Coast ports, where the HMT is uniformly applied. This is their finding in a nutshell:

Port data collected by The Journal of Commerce shows clearly that while Seattle and Tacoma have lost no market share relative to U.S. West Coast ports, their market share in the Pacific Northwest, a region that includes the Canadian ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, has slipped significantly in recent years.

That may not be conclusive of HMT culpability but it is indicative of competitive weakness just south of the 49th Parallel.  The comparative strength in British Columbia could be attributed to the HMT in addition to other factors, among them the efficient intermodal delivery system established as part of Canada’s ongoing Pacific Gateway Transportation Strategy.

Enter the Maritime Goods Movement Act User Fee proposed in the bill. The HMT would be repealed and then, for all practical purposes, recreated as the “MGMA User Fee.” In virtually every respect it would be like the HMT. The principal difference is that it also would be applied to U.S. bound cargo that first enters North America through Canada or Mexico.  Shippers would pay when the cargo crosses the land border.  On this bill rest the hopes of Puget Sound’s largest ports.

But the senators didn’t stop there. They also decided to try to fix the issue that is troubling most U.S. ports—the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The bill would make several changes—including expanded uses of the HMTF such as are found in the Senate-passed WRDA (S. 601)—but let’s here focus on the greatest failing of the law as it now stands. That is the under-spending of HMTF funds.

Unlike the RAMP Act that would rely on a parliamentary mechanism to leverage full funding over the objections of appropriators, and unlike the WRDA bills of the Senate and House that set funding targets at which appropriators might aim, the MGMA bill uses a direct approach. At the bottom of page 10 is this: “[N]o fee may be collected…except to the extent that the expenditure of the fee [for allowable activities] is provided for in advance in an appropriations Act.” It is a rarely used means tying revenue collections to the spending of those revenues. The transaction would occur outside the section 302 allocations that cap appropriations committee spending. In doing so it would remove the incentive for appropriators to limit allocations and would treat the HMTF more like a dedicated trust fund.

This approach is employed in other areas of government where a user fee is collected to support a specific function of government. The only downside is that to meet the requirements of budget rules Congress also would have to identify offsetting revenue to fill the hole that would be created when, as a first step to creating the new MGMA User Fee, the HMT would be repealed, thereby eliminating 10 years of projected revenue.  Yes, it gets murky down deep in the budget process. But the result would be the very easily understood concept of “dollars in, dollars out,” as a Murray aide summarized.

Finding the offset, in the range of billions of dollars, presents a real challenge to the bill sponsors. There is a reason why other attempts at legislative solutions have produced little more than “sense of Congress” statements of principle and funding targets that are…well…just targets. The climb up this legislative Hill is very steep and the obstacles—including leadership objections and the search for offsetting revenue—have been daunting.

While we are noting the degree of incline ahead, let’s add to this particular bill the likelihood of complaints to the State Department from Mexico and Canada, who are major U.S. trading partners, and opposition from shippers and the railroads that carry their cargo into the U.S.

But that doesn’t mean it is the wrong solution to an HMTF problem that has existed since the early 1990s. It is the right one because it would be a more effective and lasting way to link the revenue to the reason for the revenue, which is to keep American harbor channels maintained and our ports competitive.  Pbea