US House passes amendment providing Covid-19 relief for the maritime sector

The US House of Representatives as passed the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2021 which, as is the way with the complex US legislative process, has bundled in significant maritime provisions not at first sight related to the title of the bill.

HR 6395, (the William M (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for FY2021), includes the Elijah E Cummings Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2020, which reauthorizes the Coast Guard and Federal Maritime Commission (FMC). It includes increased authorized funding levels, demonstration programme authorizations, new report requirements, and clarifications and enhancements of Coast Guard regulatory authorities.

The USCG legislation includes provisions to strengthen the Coast Guard by enhancing navigation and maritime safety, increasing funding to address a $1.8bn backlog in shore infrastructure and deferred maintenance, authorizing new family leave and child care policies, and increasing gender and racial diversity in the USCG Academy and within the ranks.

Also of interest was the De Fazio Amendment, introduced by the Democratic Party Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio of Oregon. This amendment will provide relief to the maritime industry during a national emergency, increase training opportunities for merchant mariners, authorize a new competitive grant programme for projects at smaller ports and terminals, and establish a National Shipper Advisory Committee to give US importers and exporters a formal process to interact with the Federal Maritime Commission.

The “Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief Act” will establish a comprehensive maritime emergency relief authority to enable the Maritime Administration to provide financial assistance to stabilize and ensure the reliable functioning of the US Maritime Transportation System in the event of a national emergency or disaster, which will include the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Introduced by Subcommittee Chair Maloney, the Elijah E Cummings” Mariner Workforce Development Act” establishes a merchant mariner career training loan programme that will provide assistance to merchant mariners who are enrolled in a course of study to obtain or upgrade a document or licence. It also establishes a programme to award grants to maritime training institutions to enable them to carry out demonstration projects that will support the development and implementation of new methods of recruiting, training, and retaining individuals in the merchant mariner workforce.

Introduced by Illinois Republican representative Michael Bost the “Coastal and Inland Ports and Terminals Commerce Improvements Act” establishes a competitive grant programme for projects at smaller ports and terminals and allows privately-owned terminals to compete for assistance.

Finally, the amendment establishes a National Shipper Advisory Committee to advise the FMC on policies relating to the competitiveness, reliability, integrity, and fairness of the international ocean freight delivery system.

DeFazio said that “The Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief Act would for the first time authorize the Maritime Administration to provide financial assistance to stabilize and ensure the reliable functioning of the U.S. Maritime Transportation System in the event of a national emergency or disaster, including, the current COVID-19 public health emergency. The hard-working men and women of the maritime industry have kept critical goods moving during the global pandemic, and for that our thanks are not enough. This bill gives them the same protections and relief given to other industries during COVID-19.”

The bill could be become law later this year. The US Senate is expected to vote on their version of the NDAA shortly. While the Senate NDAA does not contain a similar provision, the differences will be resolved in a House-Senate conference later this year.

“Ensuring the maritime industry has the resources it needs during an emergency or natural disaster is an important step in protecting the workers, national security assets, and goods that pass through our ports every day,” Maloney said. “The coronavirus pandemic made it clear that we need more support and systems in place to stabilize the industry in the event of a catastrophe. The Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief Act will help better support this vital industry in a comprehensive way, and get the United States Maritime Transportation System the reliable support it needs for the future.”