Congress considers a plan updating US maritime laws

Congress is considering enacting what could be the most comprehensive streamlining of US maritime regulations since the days of the Wilson administration in World War I.

The controversial legislative package would, in effect, free federal maritime regulators from scores of highly technical and restrictive shipping requirements dating back to 1916.

Also, the legislation would provide antitrust immunity for oceangoing shipping lines to jointly set price rates.

The landmark legislation the Omnibus Maritime Regulatory Reform, Revitalization, and Reorganization Act of 1980 has been opposed by the Carter administration as being too sweeping in its restructuring of US maritime policy. At the same time, the act has been anathema to almost all major maritime-related political constituencies including labor unions, shippers, builders, and the US Commerce Department.

In spite of that formidable roster of critics, the Senate approved a more modest version of the legislation in late April. But passage of a bill by the House of Representatives, according to many analysts here, remains dubious.

The measure will just "not make it past the floor" of the House, asserts Royal Kastens, director of legislative affairs for the American Association of Port Authorities, which has opposed much of the legislation.

Even Paul N. McCloskey Jr. of California, ranking Republican on the House Merchant Marine Committee and a co-sponsor of the bm, figures enactment of the measure is not likely at this time.

The impetus for the legislation is the pellmell decline in the once-dominant US merchant fleet.

At the end of World War II the US fleet virtually dominated world trade patterns. But then, as overseas governments began directly subsidizing their merchant ships, the US fleet sailed into a rapid decline that it has never been able to arrest.

By 1980 the entire US fleet was down to 582 ships, compared with 1,224 in 1950. Of some 5,000 large bulk carriers plying world waters today, only about 19 are US vessels.

All told, US ships now handle less than 5 percent of total US foreign trade.

In fact, the plight of the US fleet has been so sorry in recent years that Mr. Carter early in his presidency promised a reform of maritime regulations. In July 1979 he submitted an overall legislative package.

Why then, given the problems of the industry and the fact that both the administration and perhaps the majority of Congress favor some type of reform, is there now such a strong possibility that the maritime package stands a good chance of being scuttled in the House this year?

That, according to legislative analysts here, stems from essentially three factors:

1. The splintering of the maritime industry into competing interest groups, such as builders, shippers, and unions.

2. The fact that any new legislation will be very expensive perhaps as much as $1.5 billion annually at a time of congressional budget pruning.

3. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that the driving "sparkplug" for the House bill, Rep. John M. Murphy (D) of New York, is seeking as complete a legislative package as possible.

As chairman of the House Merchant Marine Committee, Mr. Murphy is backing a House measure that combines regulatory reform with new rules involving federal subsidies for the construction and operation of ships.

The regulatory aspects of both the Senate and House bills are essentially similiar, and legislative compromise is considered possible.

But the House measure would also provide federal operating subsidies for foreign-built ships that are bought for the US fleet. Currently, operating subsidies are paid only to US-built ships.

There is also a question about whether the House bill would lead to a "cargo preference" requirement that up to 50 percent to total US foreign trade be carried on US ships within five years.

Shippers, who want to ensure their right to ship on cheaper overseas vessels when possible, adamantly oppose cargo preference.

A measure that would have lead to cargo preference for US shipping was killed by the House in 1977.

What all this adds up to, analysts here insists, is that months of tough negotiating and hard compromise face lawmakers if a new maritime bill is to make it into law this year. And given an industry splintered into numerous factions, the act of compromise may well be an impossible hurdle.

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