Building cross-industry coalitions in Washington is more crucial than ever to getting favorable legislation passed, but transportation interests must be careful not to alienate potential partners — even those with opposing views. An opponent today might be a valuable ally tomorrow.
That’s the philosophy the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America brings to the table when negotiating with government agencies or lobbying before Congress, and it seems to work.
“We try to build coalitions and present a united front,” Ed Greenberg, the NCBFAA’s general counsel, told the organization’s annual conference in Rancho Mirage, Calif., last week.
The NCBFAA, which represents non-vessel-operating common carriers, freight forwarders and customs brokers, has had some drawn-out battles with ocean carriers.
Freight intermediaries continually oppose carrier immunity from antitrust laws that allows shipping lines in the same trade lane to discuss freight rates.
“We don’t see why carriers should have antitrust immunity. It’s a pet issue of ours,” Greenberg said.
The NCBFAA also filed comments with the Federal Maritime Commission in opposition to a request last December by the Transpacific Stabilization Agreement that could have led to capacity management in the eastbound Pacific. The TSA asked that its members be allowed to discuss whether they should seek to stabilize freight rates as imports from Asia dropped by engaging in a unified effort to reduce vessel capacity.
The comments of the NCBFAA and shipper organizations worked; the FMC requested so much information from the TSA that the carriers withdrew the proposal in February.
Although the freight intermediaries opposed carriers on those issues, the NCBFAA sought the support of lines and shippers in asking the FMC to end the requirement that NVOCCs file their tariffs, something ocean carriers no longer have to do.
Despite its occasional differences with shipping lines, the NCBFAA maintains a working group with carriers to address ongoing issues.
The NCBFAA’s carrier practices committee, for example, continues to discuss ways to prevent shipping lines and terminal operators from levying equipment detention and demurrage charges for the late return of containers and chassis when the customer is not at fault.
Intermediaries, truckers, ocean carriers, shippers and the FMC united this year to oppose a plan by the Port of Los Angeles requiring harbor drayage companies to hire employee drivers as part of the port’s clean-trucks program.
Private-sector interests filed amicus briefs in litigation involving the program, and the FMC went a step further by filing its own lawsuit in federal district court in Washington.
Although the court denied the FMC’s bid for an injunction, the agency “has been extremely helpful” in the clean-trucks case, Greenberg said.
All companies engaged in international commerce also should work together this summer and fall as the United Nations prepares to replace the 1936 Carriage of Goods at Sea Act with new carrier liability laws that will be voted on in September and could take effect a year later.
The new protocol would double a carrier’s liability, which has stood at $500 per package for the past 70 years. The new international rules also would allow parties to opt out of this provision through mutually agreed language in the contract.
Coalition-building and legislative vigilance will be especially helpful as the Obama administration fills regulatory agency positions and attempts to put its stamp on how the U.S. transportation industry works, said Jon Kent, the NCBFAA’s legislative counsel.
“It is clear we are moving into very tricky, troubled waters,” he said.
The FMC is making important decisions even though it does not have a full complement of commissioners, Kent said, so it is important for transportation interests to build coalitions in Congress to help look after their needs. (The agency has been functioning with two vacancies since last June.)
Greenberg acknowledged the Obama administration reached out to the industry early on for input on transportation issues. The NCBFAA met with Obama’s transition team on issues even before he took office. “I had not seen that before in other incoming administrations,” he said.
Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at email@example.com.