Congress has a responsibility to save the Merchant Marine

Congress has a responsibility to save the Merchant Marine
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The United States has long prided itself on being a seafaring, maritime nation. Separated from most of the world by two oceans, our country has long relied upon the U.S. Merchant Marine to trade with the world, provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance to those in need, and project military power.

Our civilian Merchant Marine is responsible for getting our armed forces to the fight and for keeping them supplied once they get there. Over 90 percent of the items needed by our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq were carried on vessels owned, operated, and crewed by American civilian mariners.


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. 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.

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.

Congress, with input from the Defense Department, determined long ago our nation’s economic and military independence requires no less. By law, U.S.-flag vessels are owned, operated, and controlled by Americans. This puts them at a competitive disadvantage because they do not compete on a level playing field.

Complying with U.S. laws, paying U.S. taxes, and hiring trusted American mariners to execute the mission comes at higher cost than that faced by cut rate “flag of convenience” ships with loyalty to nothing but profit, and against whom U.S. operators compete head-to-head. The only way the Merchant Marine can remain viable is through support programs that help counter these disadvantages inherent to the requirement that the 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.

Cargo preference is a common-sense way to maintain the Merchant Marine. If the federal government is paying the freight, it makes sense to employ Americans to do the work. 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 Merchant Marine. 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 1 percent of the overall food aid budget.

According to DOD and the Transportation Department, we are 40 ships and 2,000 mariners short of what’s needed to sustain the military. 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.

Calls to carve-out certain agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), should be rejected out of hand. Cargo preference should be bolstered through brave new initiatives ensuring a small portion of certain trades move on U.S.-flag ships provided when available at fair and reasonable rates. One such initiative is Rep. John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiDem lawmaker: 'The president has it in for California' Overnight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Trump blasts intel officials as 'passive and naive' | Lawmakers reintroduce Yemen war powers resolution | Dems push Pentagon to redo climate report | VA proposes new rules for private health care House Armed Services Dems demand Pentagon offer more complete climate change report MORE’s (D-Calif.) Energizing American Shipbuilding Act, which would reserve small percentages of liquefied natural gas and crude oil exports for U.S.-flag vessels built in America.

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.

Bryant E. Gardner is a partner with Winston & Strawn LLP, where he has practiced admiralty and maritime law for over 17 years, representing ports, port operators, carriers, financial institutions and lenders.

Brian W. Schoeneman is political and legislative director for the Seafarers International Union of North America, the largest American maritime labor union, representing mariners in both the domestic and international trades.