A FAMILIAR QUESTION - Why doesn't the United States have a maritime policy? - was heard during the House Merchant Marine Subcommittee hearings on the proposed budgets for the Maritime Administration and Federal Maritime


Rep. Walter Jones, D-N.C., chairman of the parent House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, said the Reagan administration had failed to produce a maritime policy in the six years it has been in office, and that now Congress must develop such a policy - as indeed it must. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md., a committee member and a former FMC chairman, said she had not seen a federal maritime policy formulated in the 37 years she has been involved in the industry. When she asked Maritime Administrator John Gaughan why it hadn't been possible to get an administration to produce a maritime policy, he replied, "I wish I could give you an answer."There is a another question to be asked, and it is getting more and more difficult to answer. It is: Exactly what should a maritime policy cover? There is no use complaining about a lack of policy unless it is clearly understood just what one is talking about.

Only about 25 years ago, when ships picked up an assortment of goods assembled on a pier and carried them to a pier in some overseas country, it was much easier to define maritime policy. In the platitudinous wording of every piece of legislation on the subject, it was to establish and maintain a U.S.-flag fleet adequate to serve the commercial needs of the countryand of the armed forces in the event of a national emergency. Thus, a goal of 300 new U.S.-flag ships in 10 years - never achieved, of course - was set in the Shipping Act of 1970. That seemed to be a declaration of policy for the U.S. merchant marine.

Today it is recognized that ships alone do not reflect a policy. A host of other questions appear. Does the country's interest require only a few big lines, or do smaller operations deserve some measure of protection? Can the fleet survive the buffetings of rate-cutting competition and the constant downward pressure on rates from service contracts? Can it exist without assurance of reasonable access to the imports and exports of trading partners and foreign-to-foreign cargo? Should it risk an expansion of present U.S. laws on flag preference, and the prospect of retaliation by other countries? When a ship line owns, or is owned by, an inland carrier, where are the boundaries of fair intermodal rates, of profit and loss? Should U.S.-flag ships be committed to pools or bilateral agreements? How should Title XI of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 be amended, so that its mortgage and loan guarantees are restricted to the merchant marine?

These questions - a host of others could be added - are not raised to create the impression of an insurmountable wall. The U.S.-flag merchant marine has fallen to what seems to be a dangerously low level, not at all reflective of the place of the United States in world trade. But the same can be said of shipping in many another maritime power. Overtonnaging is an almost universal problem.

What is needed is a realistic appraisal of what the United States needs in merchant shipping, a commitment to achieve and maintain some reasonable goals, and a declaration of policies that will best serve cargo-moving ocean carriers and cargo-owning shippers - at least, those shippers who understand that simply beating down rates below tolerable levels can do them more harm than good.

Rep. Jones is right in saying the Reagan administration has a dismal record on this score. No one expects gleaming perfection in a policy - just something better than hands-off indifference.

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