Future U.S. Merchant Mariners Deemed Non-Essential
U.S. Coast Guard veteran, maritime attorney and all-around maritime expert Dennis Bryant stole a bit of my (planned) thunder this week when he pointed out for all to see that both the U.S. Senate and House were crafting corrections to previous legislation that would, for all intents and purposes, allow U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) students and staff to return to campus. Most, if not all were sent home when the partial government shutdown kicked off, and as I pen this column, they are still cooling their heels at home. It is a collective sad state of affairs – beyond Kings Point and extending all the way to the sordid mess inside the beltway – but the decision to designate Kings Point personnel as “non-essential” simply perpetuates (and underscores) the longstanding benign neglect of the U.S. waterfront in general.
While their service academy cousins attend sailing regattas and play regularly scheduled football games, USMMA students and their professors are caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s difficult to imagine that the former activities are important enough to continue on unabated (and I do not care what funds them) while the training of future mariners that taxpayers foot the bill for; is not. It has been patiently explained to me that the difference between the other service academies and Kings Point involves the DOD and DHS oversight that the USMMA does not also enjoy.
In fact, I contacted the DOT’s U.S. Maritime Administration this week to find out just who is working and who was not. I got this cryptic reply from their PAO: “I am not in the office due to a lapse in funding. I will respond to your e-mail upon my return.” It turns out that Marad isn’t very important, either. We could argue that point beyond the cessation of hostilities inside the beltway (hopefully in the near future), but let’s keep our eye on the ball for the time being.
Additionally, I have had conversations with current and former USMMA personnel in the past week, both of whom shook their heads at what has happened and lamented the course of events there; not just in the past two weeks, but dating back far before the current crisis. We don’t have the time to list the blunders which have beset the federal maritime academy over the past ten years, but suffice it to say, they are many. On the other hand, distilling today’s headlines down to the lowest common denominator is easy: the federal government deems it important enough to fund the academy and pay the room, board and tuition of its students but ultimately doesn’t think any of it is important enough to keep up and running during times of national fiscal crisis. Consequently, if I was in any way involved in the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, I would be very, very nervous at this time.
The bigger problem unfortunately extends well past what’s happening (or not) at Kings Point. The same lack of priority extended to the domestic waterfront, U.S. flag ships and port infrastructure is merely being inflicted on perhaps the highest visibility involvement in domestic maritime policy that the federal government has today. So, while the furlough of Kings Point folks may invoke, at least for maritime professionals, a heightened sense of awareness of the serious nature of the current situation, we’ve really got much bigger fish to fry. For example, and having just returned from the annual meeting of the National Waterways Conference in Savannah, GA, it was made painfully clear – well before the really hard decisions that will necessarily follow today’s broader budget struggles – that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) does not have the money to do what is necessary to keep our waterways open and running efficiently. Indeed, one after another USACE presentations at the event carried the theme of “with less, you will get less.”
Separately, back at DHS headquarters, the Coast Guard is feeling the sting of budget cutbacks. And, the Maritime Security Program (MSP), a collective fleet of foreign-built (I love to throw that part in), U.S. flagged sealift vessels is probably going to get notably smaller. Somewhere, probably not at the Pentagon, I assure you, someone has decided that funding the military is “essential” but maintaining an adequate sealift capacity to support those efforts is not. No doubt they also connected the dots and decided that if we didn’t have any merchant ships, then there wasn’t any point to training mariners, either.
Like you, I don’t know when and how the current situation will resolve itself. By the time I can post this column on line, all of our problems – until the next budget battle rears its ugly head – might be solved. The temporary shuttering of Kings Point is but a tiny glimpse of a larger, dysfunctional national maritime policy that threatens to take down the economy in ways that the average taxpayer cannot fathom. That said; if it takes the temporary defunding of a federal academy to shed greater light onto the train wreck that typifies America’s current intermodal picture, then I’m all for it.
The ongoing budget battles in Washington seemingly focus on social entitlements, the so-called ObamaCare socialized medicine, defense spending, earmarks and other more widely publicized issues. Because of that reality, a likely casualty of any agreement, especially in the continuing climate fostered by sequestration, will be infrastructure and transportation funding. Within that broader line item, the waterfront will take a big hit. The situation at Kings Point is merely a subliminal message sent by Washington to let you know what’s coming next. Count on it. – MarPro.
* * *
Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.