THE U.S. NAVY and the Maritime Administration have locked horns in a fight over the Ready Reserve Force. And let us make it clear from the start, The Journal of Commerce is siding with Marad.

Back in 1976, the Navy put together a Ready Reserve Force of merchant vessels - cargo carriers, bulkers and tankers - a large portion of which could be fully operational in as few as five days. Today, that fleet totals some 75 ships, with another 10 ships about to be added. It is part of an even larger mobilization force of cargo vessels, the National Defense Reserve Fleet, of some 300 ships (including the Ready Reserve Force).Funds for buying and maintaining the ships come out of the Navy's budget. But the responsibility for maintaining this pool of ships in a state of operational readiness and breaking them out in times of national emergency has resided with Marad since 1946, when Congress passed the Merchant Ship Sales Act. Specifically, that act gives Marad charge over the National Defense Reserve Fleet. Since the Ready Reserve Force was not even conceived back in 1946, it is not specifically mentioned in the statute. That fact gave the Navy its opening.

All indications are that the Navy wants total control of the ships in the Ready Reserve Force, which by fiscal 1991 is expected to total 116 vessels.

But in its opening gambit, the Navy merely complained to Marad and Congressional members of the Armed Services Committee that Marad was taking too long to process the purchasing of the vessels and prepare them in a state of operational readiness. Considering this a legitimate complaint, Maritime Administrator John Gaughan (it sounds like gone) reshuffled his staff and made some procedural changes to speed up the process more to the Navy's requirements.

But the Navy wasn't satisfied. Now it needs greater access to the ships in situations short of national emergency, for example during Naval exercises or as support vessels to its beefed up operational fleet. This is a legitimate argument. Its desire for obtaining total responsibility for the Ready Reserve Force also has a legitimacy to it. If the funds come from the Navy's budget, how can it exercise proper responsibility for how those funds are spent if the spending actually is done by Marad. That basically is the same argument that President Reagan makes in seeking line veto authority over individual items in the federal budget. Since he is ultimately responsible for the budget deficit, he has argued, he should have more say over the budget.

Ours is a government of checks and balances. Our forefathers had excellent insight into the shadier parts of the nature of man as well those higher virtues that are God-given. Giving the money to the Navy and having Marad spend it, to our way of thinking, guarantees that Marad is not going to be profligate with the Navy's money.

Rep. Mario Biaggi, D-N.Y., saw it that way, too. The House Merchant Marine Committee, which he chairs, attached an amendment to the Merchant Marine Authorization Act that specifically states that the secretary of transportation (to whom Marad reports) has responsibility for maintaining the National Defense Reserve Fleet and the Ready Reserve Force.

Nothing is simple in Washington. Rep. Charles E. Bennett, D-Fla., a former Marine that serviced reports to the Navy, had a problem with Rep. Biaggi's amendment. To speed along the authorization act, the amendment was dropped and attached to the Budget Reconciliation bill. Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has written a letter to the Ways and Means Committee and the House Rules Committee proposing that the amendment be dropped from the budget bill. Rep. Aspin served in the U.S. Army.

The amendment probably will be dropped. But we propose that Rep. Biaggi introduce it again in the next session of Congress with an addition. Why not permit the Navy greater flexibility in its use of the National Reserve Force - short of the president having to declare a national emergency but not to the extent that it will take business away from commercial U.S.-flag operators?

By keeping the responsibility for maintaining the ships with Marad, it will not only assure that the Navy's money is spent judiciously, but it will assure Marad and the U.S.-flag commercial shipping industry a certain level of clout in Washington.

Marad already has lost the ship construction subsidy program and the administration has scheduled an end both to research and development and vessel construction loan and mortgage insurance. Taking the Ready Reserve Force away from Marad, makes it more difficult to justify the existence of the organization.

What's wrong with that? One might properly ask. Only those who don't understand how Washington works would ask such a question. And Mr. Reagan might be one of those. Unless an industry has a major agency in Washington representing it, that industry will suffer. No squeaky, no grease. The U.S.-flag industry, in time of peace and war, is too important to the nation not to be represented in the government.

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