In 1990, Congress was dreaming up new ways to raise revenue when someone discovered the Customs tonnage tax. This was a tax that for years slipped the detection of those wonderful Washington people who dig up new money mines. In basic form, it levied 6 cents against the net registered tonnage of ships arriving from outside of North America.
Shortly after discovering this little gem, a congressional committee floated a proposal to increase the tax to 81 cents per nrt. The ports, vessel agents, stevedores and others reliant on foreign trade responded with shock and indignation.So the committee responded, sort of, and scaled back the increase to ''only'' 27 cents. For vessels arriving from a foreign port within North America, including the Caribbean, the tax went from 2 cents per nrt. to 9 cents.
Either way, it was a 450 percent increase.
On a percentage basis, I thought this was a maritime record that might stand for awhile, but once again I have underestimated our government. The record (or, in the redundancy of TV sportscasters, the ''new record'') is now somewhere between 2,000 percent and 4,500 percent.
The State Department for years charged $40 to process foreign crew list visas. A higher fee was charged if a ship had more than 40 crewmembers. Thus, with 40 in the crew, the fee would be $1 person, but most crews average 20 to 30 members, so the net price was about $1.30 to $2.00 per person.
PROTEST RISE IN CHARGE
This year, effective Feb. 1, the processing fee was raised to $45 per person.
When the increase went into effect, the Center for Seafarers' Rights, a division of Seamen's Church Institute in New York, strenuously protested. So did the Twin Ports Ministry to Seafarers in Duluth, Minn., and other port ministries nationwide. But virtually no one else complained - and, let's face it, foreign sailors are ciphers politically.
The results were predictable. Some shipowners who previously paid the incidental processing fee now refuse to pay. It's no longer an incidental cost.
CREWS MAY BE FORCED
TO REMAIN ABOARD SHIPS
Crewmembers, many of whom earn monthly wages little more than a week's pay in U.S. industry, cannot afford to pay it themselves. So the ships come and go, and - unless the local office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service is willing to issue a waiver - the crews can be forced to stay aboard.
Internationally, shore leave is a right of every sailor. The crew list visa requirement in the United States is already a unique imposition on that right. This latest ''user fee'' rip-off adds insult.
Welcome to America. Here's my hand. Grease my palm.
Douglas Stevenson, director of The Center for Seafarers' Rights, tried in March to get a fee exemption for ships' crews and wrote to scores of congressmen and senators.
''Maritime law and practice have long recognized that shore leave is necessary for seafarers' mental and physical health,'' Mr. Stevenson said.
He cited a U.S. Supreme Court opinion: ''Men cannot live for long cooped up aboard ship without substantial impairment of their efficiency, if not also serious danger to discipline. Relaxation beyond the confines of the ship is necessary if the work is to go on, more so that it may move smoothly.
''No master would take a crew to sea if he could not grant shore leave, and no crew would be taken if it could never obtain it.
''Even more for the seaman than the landsman, therefore, the superfluous is the necessary to make life livable and to get work done. In short, shore leave is an elemental necessity in the sailing of ships, a part of the business as old as the art, not merely a personal diversion.''
An eloquent summary, it generally fell on deaf ears. Mr. Stevenson heard from only three or four members of Congress.
Equally damning, however, is the fact that the ports and the agents and virtually everyone else in our industry stayed silent, too. This, you see, does not affect cargo competitiveness.
HARD TO FIND GOOD
HELP THESE DAYS
It is a fact, however, that crewing is an increasingly big problem for shipowners. ''Going down to the sea in ships'' doesn't have the allure it once did, particularly when there are a lot of good jobs ashore. Crew quality is becoming an issue.
Meanwhile, our government spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to improve our image abroad. We impose economic sanctions on nations that fail to meet certain human rights standards. We are hung up on political correctness and multiculturalism and diversity. We have nongovernmental organizations conducting exceptional humanitarian programs worldwide.
But sailors, especially foreign sailors, are invisible to most Americans, starting with our government. The Statue of Liberty includes the inscription, ''I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.'' I have finally figured out the reference to gold.