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Today, the still unpublished document is nearing the end of the draft process.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