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Trump Veto Threatens Financial Relief for U.S. Seaports

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Published Dec 23, 2020 10:13 PM by The Maritime Executive

President Donald Trump has vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2021, the annual policy bill that covers servicemember pay, warship acquisition, weapons research and other basic military operations. The bill has passed every year since the Kennedy administration, and its regularity makes it a popular vehicle for many non-defense measures. This year, the NDAA includes financial relief for U.S. seaports, new rules for passenger vessel safety, and new language that applies federal offshore energy regulations (and the Jones Act) to offshore wind farms. 

Among many other measures contained in its 1,800 pages, the now-vetoed bill would create a new Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief Program (MTSERP) to provide funding to ports after natural disasters and emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic. It would also raise the authorized funding level for the Port Infrastructure Development Program (PIDP) to $750 million annually, up from $500 million. PIDP grants help improve port and freight infrastructure.

It also contains language that would ensure that offshore wind farms would count as U.S. points for purposes of the Jones Act, just like offshore oil and gas facilities. This would ensure that foreign-flag vessels would not be allowed to carry goods between U.S. ports and wind projects on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf. 

In an amendment driven by the fire aboard the dive boat Conception - one of the deadliest marine accidents in the U.S. in recent memory - the bill contains language strengthening safety regulations aboard small passenger vessels. It would require new rules on fire detectors, escape routes and vessel-specific safety management systems (not currently a requirement on smaller vessels like Conception). 

Congress passed the NDAA (and its many non-defense amendments) by wide bipartisan majorities - 84-13 in the Senate, 335-78 in the House. These margins are easily large enough to override the president's veto if maintained in a second vote. The House will meet again on Monday to determine whether to override the veto, and it will need to have at least 288 votes to carry it out. The Senate plans to follow suit on Tuesday, and would need to retain 67 votes. 

The margin could be slimmer on the second pass through Congress. As it will be the first vote on a veto override in Trump's presidency, it poses a unique challenge for Republican members of both chambers, who are faced with a difficult choice between voting against the leader of their party or voting against military funding - just one week before the end of this Congress' term.