Making the Case for Maritime

Interview with Sean Connaughton, Secretary of Transportation, Commonwealth of Virginia, and former MARAD Administrator

MarEx: The U.S. needs a maritime policy, but the industry cannot get traction on Capitol Hill. Could a maritime industry “think tank” help in developing one?

Connaughton:  For almost 100 years the United States had an integrated maritime policy which focused on economic and national security.  That policy had clearly articulated and understandable  objectives and accompanying federal programs to support it.  Fortunately, the need for a maritime industry and a comprehensive policy was an easy sell given the United States' experiences in two world wars and the subsequent Cold War. 

Unfortunately, the policies of the 20th Century are not translating well in the 21st Century.  This is exacerbated by the current fiscal and political situation in Washington. The maritime industry is competing for attention and support from a federal government that seems "lost at sea" on so many important issues. This situation will only get worse given continued federal spending deficits and mounting national debt.  The eventual need to address these fiscal problems by reducing and/or eliminating federal programs means that fiscal matters will drive policy instead of the other way around.  Especially vulnerable will be those programs without previously existing strong policy foundations and political support.

Let's face it: there currently isn't a clear U.S. maritime policy for the 21st Century.  What we do have is haphazard adherence to policies adopted decades ago.  As a result, we are at the mercy of federal decision makers with no vision or understanding of the maritime industry, its importance or the direction it needs to follow. 

We need to educate, inform, and debate America's maritime future in clearly understandable and supportable terms.  If we don't, the maritime industry will be left behind. 

That's why a maritime think tank can make a difference.  It can develop the intellectual underpinnings necessary to support a clear and comprehensive maritime policy that stimulates the economy, create jobs, and ensures national security.  It can be a clearinghouse of ideas, data and policy proposals that can form the foundation for a national maritime policy for the 21st Century.

MarEx: How should the industry proceed?

Connaughton: The first step is to get stakeholder consensus behind the think tank concept.  Once that is accomplished, a structure needs to be agreed to and a financial plan developed. After that, the think tank can be created and a plan of for research and policy development developed.

It would also be helpful for the think tank to be affiliated with a reputable academic institution to ensure independence and provide oversight.  We have done something similar in Virginia in regards to transportation public-private partnerships (P3s). Virginia has been a leader in P3s yet the policy rationale for using them is often misunderstood by the public, media and politicians.  Consequently, we helped establish the Center for Transportation Public-Private Partnership Policy at George Mason University's School for Public Policy.  The Center is conducting research, publishing papers, hosting seminars, and providing information and data on P3s to the public, media and politicians.  It is our hope this Center becomes the national go-to institution for P3 policy and practice.  A maritime think tank can be established using a similar approach.

MarEx: DOT does not have a vision of maritime, and that’s frightening.

Connaughton: This is a big problem.  The main body of today’s U.S. maritime polices were established in the 1930s in response to the maritime problems experienced in World War One and the challenges of the Great Depression.  These policies need to be updated and reformed to address  today's global and domestic realities and national security needs.  This simply is not being done today at the federal level. 

Another problem we face is the down grading of maritime panels in Congress.  For example, less then 20 years ago the House had a full committee devoted to maritime issues.  That loss of influence is exacerbated by the traditional mechanism for modifying policies in Congress through appropriations committees and authorization committees being broken. Continued resolutions and other omnibus bills means that it is getting tougher to get Congress's attention to address specific issues or develop comprehensive policy proposals.  Individual members are playing a greater role in lawmaking through the "committee of the whole".  

Given these realities, if industry wants a maritime policy it is going to have to assume the leadership role. 

MarEx: Okay, the way we deal with Congress has changed, so how does the industry deal with government today?

Connaughton:  The maritime industry is facing a "united we stand, divided we fall" moment.  The system is broken and the momentum is not in its direction. 

That being said, there are opportunities to alter course with a change of mindset and approach.  Congress is desperate to pass meaningful legislation, particularly those that mean jobs.  Developing thoughtful pieces of maritime legislation that support job growth and creation are winners, especially when accompanied with grassroots outreach and political (not partisan) campaigning.  I believe the secret to success  is to approach the legislative process as it it were a political campaign.  

A great example are the Water Resources development bills which have passed the House and Senate.  Congress is hearing from industry, state and local governments, shippers, and the public about the need for this legislation and its impact on jobs.  As a result, Congress is responding positively to a policy issue that has languished for years. 

MarEx: How can we do a better job?

Connaughton: Its all about jobs, jobs, jobs. Voters want jobs and politicians like to take credit for helping create jobs for voters. It is a cause-and-effect relationship that we can't ignore.  The more the maritime interests can focus on job creation and growth, the more it will receive a receptive audience in Congress.

That being said, the maritime industry has a vital role in national security and the continued support of the defense establishment is essential for programs such as the Maritime Security Program.  However, defense programs are under stress due to the sequester cuts and the winding down of current overseas deployments. The public has grown weary of national security issues after a decade of war.  Consequently, for the foreseeable future there is less public and political appetite for increased defense-related programs.

Washington has changed and the way to advance policy has changed with it.  We need to adapt and develop a new approach now to preserve our maritime heritage and promote our maritime future. We have a limited window to accomplish that because the window is quickly closing.  – MarEx  

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.