CLINTON, CONGRESS ON COLLISION COURSE OVER DIRECTION OF MARITIME POLICY

CLINTON, CONGRESS ON COLLISION COURSE OVER DIRECTION OF MARITIME POLICY

The Clinton administration and congressional maritime leaders, who have been unable to agree on maritime subsidy legislation, are headed for a collision on even the kind of commission needed to help reshape maritime policy.

The conflict mirrors a growing difference between segments of the administration and industry advocates on Capitol Hill and seems as likely to

draw out the policy stalemate as it is to resolve it. U.S. carriers, meanwhile, have been warning for over a year that without a new subsidy program they will register their vessels under foreign flags and employ foreign seafarers.One version of a maritime policy commission still is being developed by Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review for the detailed report it will issue in the next few weeks. The rival version, spelled out in identical Senate and House bills, differs significantly on the commission's goals and membership makeup (See accompanying box).

The most recent version available of the Gore plan envisions a commission with a limited role for industry and government maritime advocates. Its

commission would approach the national security role of the U.S. industry as an open question and would look at deregulation of the shipping industry for the benefit of consumers.

The Senate and House bills would create a commission to examine whether the U.S.-flag carriers remain capable of serving U.S. security needs, and to propose steps to bolster the industry. Moreover, the lawmakers emphatically want shipping lines and labor to have a larger say in the process.

"We don't want to have the assumptions of the Gore commission included in the goals of (our) commission. We want to send a message to the White House and make it clear that we have other desires than they do," a key House source said.

"I hope there is only one commission, but don't discount the possibility of dueling commissions," a Senate aide added.

The structure of the commission is considered critical by all sides. Exporters and importers generally support Mr. Gore's call for an independent

commission; they contend that the industry has a record of blocking changes needed to modernize ocean transportation.

Carriers, labor and their congressional representatives say the vice president is stacking the deck against the maritime industry and that his

commission will recommend changes that are neither in their interest nor the nation's.

The split over a review commission is an outgrowth of the administration's decision in mid-May not to initiate omnibus maritime policy legislation, the centerpiece of which was to have been the extension of operating subsidies for U.S.-flag vessels. House legislation to revitalize the U.S. fleet have been introduced, but there has been no agreement on how to pay for the multibillion-dollar programs they would implement.

The nation's two largest container shipping lines, Sea-Land Service Inc., and American President Lines Ltd., have taken initial steps to register their vessels under the flags of U.S. protectorates - meaning the ships would qualify to carry U.S. military cargo in wartime.

In early August, leaked versions of Mr. Gore's reinventing government report called for ending ship subsidies and generally deregulating the maritime industry. Facing a storm of protest from maritime policy-makers inside the administration and from Congress, the vice president capitulated; the broad initial report he issued ceremoniously in early September called instead for a 90-day review commission.

The compromise was an idea borrowed from Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He had introduced a bill to establish a review commission as a means of heading off the massive changes called for in the earlier version of the Gore report.

The Hollings bill - conceived, written and introduced within a 24-hour period - was patterned after the aviation commission bill enacted into law earlier this year. Some aviation industry supporters thought the industry was insufficiently represented on the commission and warned Sen. Hollings to guard against that happening with the maritime commission.

A Senate aide said last week that Sen. Hollings would attempt to increase maritime industry representation on the commission if the bill came up before the Senate Commerce Committee. On Monday, however, the aide said that because Sen. Hollings has good relations with Democratic Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine, "we think we're going to be OK."

The aide said he hoped there would only be one commission. However, if the administration did not compromise on its proposal for a commission then Sen. Hollings would push forward with the legislation for a separate commission.

"Let's put it this way, you won't see one without Sen. Hollings input," he added.

The Senate committee has not scheduled any hearings on the Hollings bill.

The bill is on a fast track in the House. It was introduced by Rep. William O. Lipinski, D-Ill., Tuesday and moved the following day by the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee's Merchant Marine Subcommittee, which he chairs.

One source on the panel confirmed that the intent of the Lipinski bill is to "structure the commission as we would have it done," rather than acquiesce to a Gore group commission with a mission to deregulate the industry.

Rep. Jack Fields, D-Texas, ranking minority member of the House maritime panel, said the committee "finds itself in the difficult position of considering a legislative proposal that may not be necessary" because several recent studies and commissions have addressed maritime policy. But he added the committee must "send a clear signal to the administration" that industry experts should be involved in the commission.

Action on the commission bill led some observers to wonder whether the committee would put its trio of maritime reform measures - including a new subsidy program, tax changes, and a shipyard promotion program - on hold while the commission does its work.

Committee sources scotched that notion, insisting the panel will push ahead on maritime reform bills while the commission studies the industry.