While they came from different states, backgrounds and political parties, the members of Congress who addressed the 2013 Maritime Trades Department (MTD) convention agreed on one thing: The nation must have a strong maritime industry and Washington must do more to ensure it stays that way.
Speaking to a gathering of labor leaders, military officials, industry executives and convention delegates Sept. 5-6 in Los Angeles, the congressmen stressed the need for vital programs like the Jones Act, Maritime Security Program (MSP) and Food for Peace (PL-480) while also calling for the creation of a wide-ranging national maritime strategy. Such a strategy should serve as a long-term guide for Congress and the administration and guarantee the industry remains strong and vibrant in the future, they said.
Those members of Congress included Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee; John Garamendi (D-Calif.), ranking member on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee; Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee; and Cedric Richmond (D-La.), co-founder of the Congressional Maritime Caucus.
“We need a national maritime strategy,” said Hunter, adding that the strategy wouldn’t be drafted by bureaucrats in Washington. “We’re not going to come up with this in a dark room in D.C. somewhere. We’re going to come up with this strategy with you.”
As terrorism and unrest continue to shake the world, Hunter said such a strategy and a strong U.S. Merchant Marine should be among the nation’s top priorities.
“There is more of a need for a strong and large merchant marine fleet than there has ever been,” he said.
Hunter said that need was amplified following recent troubling developments that have greatly impacted the industry. He pointed specifically to cuts in the MSP, the program that provides an annual stipend to ensure 60 militarily useful merchant vessels are available to the government in times of need.
While the MSP provides billions of dollars’ worth of sealift capability to the government for a small fraction of the price, the program was hurt by across-the-board spending cuts when Congress and the administration failed to reach an agreement on the federal budget.
“We’re trying right now to put that money back in so the MSP program keeps going and we have what we need,” Hunter said. “Because at some point we’re not going to have what we need and then the military is going to have to look within and pay billions of dollars to supplement that which would cost a few million.”
Garamendi, who also called for the creation of a national maritime strategy, said the battle for the U.S. Merchant Marine and maritime industry was part of the larger federal budget battle. In an age of austerity, Garamendi said, Congress must ensure programs like the MSP, Title XI shipbuilding loans and PL-480 remain intact and fully funded.
“Those austerity budgets are going to go to the heart of the programs you care about, the programs I care about,” he said. “The fight over the nature of the budget is absolutely critical to everything you want to do.”
One of those vital programs, Garamendi said, was PL-480. Created in 1954 to transport American-grown food to countries in need aboard American-owned and –crewed vessels, PL-480 has enjoyed broad bipartisan support over the years. Aside from helping to maintain America’s sealift and military-support capability and helping to improve America’s standing in the world, it also directly accounts for more than 44,000 American jobs and boosts the economies of at least 28 states.
Earlier this year, however, the administration attempted to end PL-480 by turning it into a voucher program that would send money to countries in need rather than food. An amendment changing the program in that way was attached to the Farm Bill earlier this year, though both the amendment and the bill were defeated.
Garamendi said such alterations to PL-480 miss the point that American-made food must meet those in need while traveling on American ships.
“You cannot feed them with dollar bills,” he said. “You’re going to feed them with American grain and American food brought to them on American ships. We must continue that (program) and if we fail to do so it’s only a matter of time before those dollars dry up and they don’t have the food to survive.”
Thompson, meanwhile, said in his speech that any future battles against PL-480 would face increased resistance. Speaking of the recent Farm Bill vote that saw many members voting against PL-480, Thompson said some of the members who voted against the program have realized the error of their ways.
“Food for Peace is absolutely important. Some of our members didn’t understand that, but they do now,” Thompson said. “We have a term for that in Washington. It’s called, ‘uh oh.’ And it seems ‘uh oh’ means, ‘the next time it comes up, I’m going to know better.’”
Like his fellow Congressional colleagues, Thompson discussed the importance of maintaining a vibrant U.S. Merchant Marine and keeping vital maritime programs intact. As the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee – and its former chairman – Thompson said he knows firsthand how important maritime is to the country.
“The Jones Act support is a no-brainer,” Thompson said of the key maritime law that requires all domestic shipping to be on American-made, -crewed and -flagged vessels. “If we don’t preserve what we have as a country, we lose our security. So I would encourage you to work hard to keep the Jones Act where it is.”
Known as the lifeblood of the maritime industry, the Jones Act protects America’s ports and inland waterways while also ensuring the nation has a vibrant fleet of merchant vessels ready to answer the country’s call in times of war and crisis. It also accounts for more than 500,000 American jobs and more than $100 billion in annual economic output while maintaining a pool of reliable, well-trained U.S. mariners who support our troops whenever and wherever needed.
Richmond cited those statistics in his speech to the MTD, adding that highlighting those sorts of benefits was one of the reasons why he co-founded the Congressional Maritime Congress earlier this year.
“If you talk about half a million jobs in one sector, then you have to understand (that) people understand it and invest in it,” Richmond said. “But the only way they will do that is if you talk about it more. The more numbers we get in those caucuses the more attention we can push and make sure we get.”
Richmond said that increasing the awareness of the benefits of key maritime programs – and the labor movement as a whole – can only do good things for the industry and the labor movement. That’s especially true, he added, in the face of unending attacks from anti-maritime and anti-labor interests.
“Whether it’s the Jones Act, cargo preference, MSP – all of those things are very critical to this country and they’re going to keep coming under attack,” Richmond said. “We just have to know that. We just need to talk about the benefits.”
And when it comes to benefiting the country and benefiting maritime, Richmond said the two are invariably linked.
“We will continue to support you all because supporting you supports the country,” he said.