Partner, Winston & Strawn, LLP
Larry Kiern is perhaps best known to readers of The Maritime Executive as the author of the widely acclaimed “Washington Insider” column. Inside the Beltway, however, he is known as one of the country’s top maritime lawyers. Chambers USA 2013 recognized him as a leading lawyer in the field of Transportation: Shipping Regulatory, and in 2012 he won the prestigious Burton Award for Distinguished Legal Writing.
There's a famous saying about our nation’s capital that goes something like this: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog!” If you are in the maritime industry, however, you may want to get to know Larry Kiern. The retired Coast Guard officer and Judge Advocate General knows his way around the halls of Congress and is immersed in most of the major maritime issues of the day. MarEx’s Jim Romeo spoke to Larry to learn a little bit more about him and his work. Here's how the conversation went.
Tell us about your background and how you came into the maritime industry.
I was born and raised in New Orleans. I came into the maritime industry by way of the U.S. Coast Guard. I entered the Coast Guard Academy in 1970 and served in the service until I retired in 1998. My early years were spent on Coast Guard cutters in the Caribbean responding to search-and-rescue cases and interdicting drug smugglers. As a young officer, I also sailed extensively on the Coast Guard barque Eagle, where we savored the remarkable experience of sailing a great square-rigged ship across the oceans. It was a grand thrill.
How did you transition into your present position?
Well, I earned a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School in 1985 and subsequently served as the Coast Guard’s legislative counsel and then as deputy chief of its congressional staff, so by the time I was ready to retire I pretty much knew my way around Capitol Hill. The transition from the Coast Guard to private practice was made even easier by the great support and encouragement of my partners at Winston & Strawn.
What were some of the challenges you faced as a lawyer in private practice?
The most interesting have involved litigating major disputes. Typically, the parties are determined in their opposition; the process is protracted and contentious, and the outcome remains uncertain for years. The prolonged time it takes for agencies and courts to process and decide issues presents real burdens to the parties and the industry.
What’s the most serious issue confronting the industry right now?
Sequestration presents the most serious threat to the nation’s maritime security. The Coast Guard and Navy have been cut seriously and will be cut more deeply in coming years under sequestration. Their capabilities will be severely hurt in the next fiscal year unless Congress reverses this short-sighted policy.
Do most legislators have a clear understanding of the issues facing the maritime industry?
No. It is usually a struggle to persuade them to take a position in favor of an industry to which they are not connected and have little knowledge. After all, most have other industries to which they are beholden. Legislators are motivated by the reelection imperative, so naturally they start with the constituencies that got them elected in the first place. It could be agriculture, manufacturing, energy, finance, technology, transportation, defense, education, or labor unions. Maritime operates as a subset of some of these larger constituencies. It certainly has key supporters who are knowledgeable, but like any industry it is always challenged to educate legislators with little connection to it.
Does the political climate and who's in office have an impact on the industry?
Elections matter and so does the political climate. For example, during the 2012 presidential election, Governor Romney promised to dramatically boost shipbuilding and the size of the Navy fleet. President Obama did not, and his budget proposes cuts in the size of the fleet and in shipbuilding. In Congress, longtime supporters like Senators Inouye and Stevens made a difference when it came to supporting the industry in the past, but now they are gone.
The cruise ship industry has suffered a number of setbacks recently. What's ahead for them as far as Congress is concerned?
The public’s confidence in the industry has been shaken. Public relations alone will not restore that confidence because the problems will recur if the underlying root causes are not addressed. Some legislators have expressed concern, but the industry benefits from the current view of many legislators who oppose government action. While it is difficult to predict the next year, the industry’s fate will probably turn more on whether or not it can avoid serious casualties and other embarrassing events and where they occur. For example, if the Costa Concordia incident had occurred along the Florida coast rather than the Italian coast, there would likely have been more action by legislators in the U.S.
Can you comment on vessel safety and piracy practices and how Congress is addressing them nowadays?
U.S.-flag vessels plainly take these matters seriously, and since the Maersk Alabama incident I am not aware of any successful attack on a major U.S.-flag vessel. Congress has enacted modest measures that are positive but, absent another major incident attracting the public’s attention, I doubt Congress will do more at this stage.
How about environmental regulations and their impact on the industry?
The industry has largely reconciled with the current regulations, and there is nothing serious on the horizon that is likely to be adopted, in my view. If natural gas proves to be a commercially attractive and technologically practical fuel, then we may see a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from shipping as we are seeing here in the U.S. as electrical generating plants have shifted from coal to natural gas.
What is the overall state of the industry today?
From my perspective, it appears that the domestic industry is on the rebound after a trying period of economic strain. The international maritime industry remains under greater stress because of pressing financial obligations and a slower world economy. The dichotomy largely reflects the differing circumstances of the domestic U.S. economy as compared to the world economy generally.
Looking forward, what are the major challenges the industry faces?
In the next several years, the international maritime industry must work through its overcapacity problem, which it will do. If the U.S. becomes more energy independent and on-shores more manufacturing capacity, this will challenge international shipping norms built around the U.S.-import model. Domestically, the industry may stand to benefit from the same trends.
Any final words for our readers?
During my professional career working with many diverse maritime professionals around the world, I have been impressed with the outstanding quality of so many fine people. Having had the opportunity to work with them has made the experience particularly rewarding.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.