‘Time to Save Our Merchant Marine is Now’


July 2018


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America’s national, economic and homeland security demand the sustainment of a strong U.S. Merchant Marine.


That was the firm conclusion of a recent op-ed coauthored by Brian Schoeneman, political and legislative director of the SIU, and Bryant Gardner, a partner with the law firm Winston & Strawn LLP. The piece ran in The Hill newspaper on May 22 (National Maritime Day) and remains available on the publication’s website.


Schoeneman and Gardner provide background on America’s proud history as a maritime nation. Whether projecting military power or providing humanitarian assistance, U.S. civilian mariners have delivered for centuries, they note.


That’s still the case today, they continue. For instance, more than 90 percent of the materiel needed by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan was carried aboard U.S.-flag vessels with American crews.


“Because the Defense Department can rely upon our commercial fleet, it doesn’t have to hire tens of thousands of government employees and build hundreds of ships, saving taxpayers billions,” Schoeneman and Gardner point out. “Because America can rely upon its U.S. Merchant Marine, it will never again face the crisis it faced at the start of the last century, when American exports sat on the docks rotting because foreign fleets were unable or unwilling to take them to market.


“As representatives of the shipping industry and maritime unions we see the importance of this issue from all sides,” the continued. “Yet, despite the importance of the Merchant Marine to America’s economic, national, and homeland security, many of the programs designed to help maintain it have come under attack. One such program is our cargo preference law. Cargo preference requires that when taxpayer-funded cargoes are shipped by the U.S. government, at least a portion of those cargoes move on U.S.-flag vessels, provided they are available at fair and reasonable rates. This allows us to leverage transportation dollars we are already spending, accomplishing two goals at once.”


They go on to contrast the high standards applied to American crews and vessels as compared to the oftencutthroat world of runaway-flag or so-called flag-of-convenience shipping. In that light, “The only way the U.S. Merchant Marine can remain viable is through support programs that help counter these disadvantages inherent to the requirement that the U.S. Merchant Marine be an American institution we can count upon in times good and bad. In peace and war – the motto of the Merchant Marine,” the coauthors say.


When the piece was published, the industry was battling against a blindside attack (ultimately unsuccessful) on cargo preference. “If the federal government is paying the freight, it makes sense to employ Americans to do the work,” Gardner and Schoeneman point out. “Despite this, cargo preference has been under attack by well-intended ‘reformers’ looking to trim shipping costs regardless of the other impacts. Nowhere have these attacks been more fervent than among the foreign-aid community, who would carve-out international food aid shipments from cargo preference rules, promoting foreign fleets over our own.


“Critics claim that this cargo isn’t essential to the U.S. Merchant Marine,” they add. “Not true. Food aid is the largest source of government cargo available. When Congress reduced ship-American requirements for food aid from 75 percent to 50 percent, we lost a quarter of the fleet. The change had almost no impact on the overall food aid program, since using American ships instead of foreign ships represents barely one percent of the overall food aid budget…. Instead of cutting cargo preference, we should be looking to increase it. The military already aspires to ship 100 percent of its cargoes on U.S.- flag vessels. Requiring the civilian agencies to do the same would go a long way toward reversing the trend.”


They conclude, “On this, National Maritime Day, we need to stop taking our U.S. Merchant Marine for granted, and dedicate to serious discussion about ways to restore its capability. Restoring and bolstering cargo preference with new reforms is a good place to start.”


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