Capitol Hill chaos reaffirms value of AMO VPAF

By Paul Doell
National President

Here’s a direct quote from a Congressional Budget Office report:

“As the Congress considers the many issues bearing on U.S. national security, one of the more difficult matters will be what, if anything, should be done to assist the economically troubled U.S. shipping and shipbuilding industries. Without government assistance or other reform, these industries – long considered important to the economic and security interests of the United States – may shrink because of slack market conditions and lower-cost foreign competition. This shrinkage may ultimately impair the ability of the United States to mobilize, deploy and support its forces in war.”

This CBO document states current, everlasting truths – despite its completion at the request of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and its release in August 1984, this report and its valid points also parallel a time when the AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund had already cultivated a lasting and broad, bipartisan, bicameral support base on Capitol Hill, extending as well within today’s Armed Services panels and beyond.

There is contemporary high-level acknowledgment of the timeless need for the U.S. merchant fleet and American shipyards as proven national security and economic assets.

In remarks at Harvard University last September, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro outlined a policy initiative he called “Maritime Statecraft,” which he said would encompass “not only Naval diplomacy, but a national whole-of government effort to build comprehensive U.S. and allied maritime power, both commercial and Naval.”

In November, Del Toro met with representatives of the Army, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Maritime Administration, the Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Shipbuilders Council to discuss defense shipping, citing the National Security Multi-Mission Vessel Project managed at Philly Shipyard by AMO employer TOTE “on time and on cost” as one example of what can be accomplished in the national interest.

Meanwhile, the AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund – without question the most influential maritime policy promotion operation in Washington and a proven, effective job security investment choice for all deep-sea, Great Lakes and inland waters AMO members – is at work as always supporting lawmakers who support the U.S. maritime industries.

But here’s one odd twist: unprecedented Congressional chaos and the persistent possibility of a near-term government shutdown have AMO jobs – and national security – at real risk.

Under the concurrent budget resolution that averted lights-out in federal agencies on November 17, the Maritime Security Program, the new Tanker Security Fleet and Cable Security Fleet programs are funded – but only until January 1, 2024, and only at fiscal 2023 levels. One consequence was the failure to add 10 additional vessels to the 10-ship Tanker Security Fleet, which our union is best able to man.

The Maritime Security Program, which was signed into law in 1996, and which was in a short stretch expanded from 47 ships to 60, must be funded at $318 million for fiscal year 2024 – and it serves a most practical need. The 60 militarily-useful ships operate worldwide, and they are available on demand to the Department of Defense in national security emergencies to get vehicles, helicopters, heavy equipment, and such basics as bullets and beans to U.S. Armed Forces in an overseas “contested environment” – services DOD alone cannot provide.

The Tanker Security Program was launched in the fiscal 2023 budget in response to a U.S. Transportation Command strategy requiring a minimum of 80 reliable U.S.-flagged tankers for underway replenishment of aircraft carriers and fleet oilers in a sea-based war with China – a war which TRANSCOM says would not require dry cargo ships because there would be no “boots on the ground.” The TSP provides $6 million for each vessel each year.

Modeled after the MSP, the Cable Security Fleet – developed exclusively by AMO – covers two SubCom ships at $5 million each vessel each year, and our union wants very much to expand it for necessary work on undersea DOD cables.

The MSP, TSP and Cable programs were authorized for funding in the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, which was to have kicked in on October 1. This legislation was approved by both the House and the Senate in July 2023, and House and Senate conferees were designated to negotiate differences between each chamber’s version. But there was no conference, and the fiscal 2023 NDAA was the bill worked into the concurrent resolution in place since November 17 – only seven of the 12 appropriations bills necessary to operate the government were in force as of this writing, and each of these will expire at the New Year.

In one encouraging turn, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on December 7 released the 3,000-page text of the fiscal year 2024 NDAA – deleting what I had referred to as “culture war” amendments insisted upon by the slim House majority. These amendments had nothing to do with the relentless need for U.S.-flag defense shipping – but the issue remains unsettled.

Now forces in the House are tying continued government operation beyond January 1 to substantial spending cuts – including additional aid to Ukraine and support of Israel in Gaza.

We must also confront the grim possibility that a darkened government would thwart enforcement of the Jones Act, the cargo preference laws and initiatives like the NSMV project cited by Navy Secretary Del Toro.

The Jones Act has endured on conspicuous merit since June 5, 1920, accounting now for approximately 650,000 family-friendly jobs in the domestic shipping, shipbuilding, ship service and supply industries nationwide and in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and Guam. This law also sustains privately owned U.S. merchant vessels capable of moving military cargoes to all points as needed – economic and defense services resulting entirely from private capital investment and at no cost to U.S. taxpayers.

The cargo preference laws, under which specific shares of government-financed imports and exports are set aside for privately owned and operated U.S.-flag ships, are also vulnerable in the worst-case scenario. In one example of what the AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund has accomplished, we now have a far-left Democrat and a far-right Republican working arm-in-arm in the House to close cargo preference law enforcement loopholes.

Another odd turn: the conservative New York City think tank Hudson Institute would open all legitimate U.S.-flag merchant shipping companies in domestic and international trade to competition through “open registry” – a U.S.-flag of convenience, which would follow the dim-witted U.S. FOC established in the U.S. Virgin Islands. AMO and all other maritime unions are on official record against this concept, no matter where or how it surfaces.

Under these disturbing circumstances, the AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund is more important than ever if AMO members are to remain at work under the MSP, the Tanker and Cable Security programs, in the Jones Act fleets and under U.S.-flag cargo preference. I ask all members to contribute to this fund at levels they can be comfortable with.

The AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund is just that – voluntary. It covers no business expenses, no meals, no receptions. Most importantly, this fund is non-partisan, and it spans the ideological spectrum.

Contributions to the AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund can be made directly by personal check, online through the AMO website and through authorized deductions from AMO Plans vacation benefits.

Here, the echo of the Congressional Budget Office report resonates as clearly as it did 39 years ago: “The historic rationale for supportive national maritime policy – national security – is more compelling. Sealift, the carrying of people and materiel overseas on ships, is a fundamental requirement of U.S. military strategy.”

The House on December 14 approved the NDAA without many of the “culture war” amendments in place. The Senate had approved the measure December 13.