SHIPPING'S STAKE IN THE ELECTIION

SHIPPING'S STAKE IN THE ELECTIION

The presidential campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush has become an old-fashioned slugfest in these final weeks before the election, and a very entertaining one at that.

Debates rage on taxes, health care, the deficit, and moral values.

While industries such as pharmaceuticals have a lot riding on the outcome, the U.S.-flag offshore shipping industry is one that can rest assured that, no matter who wins, it will have a friend in the Oval Office for the next four years.

That is remarkable in light of the fact that, since it's now largely foreign-owned, the U.S.-flag industry has become more vulnerable to attack than perhaps at any time in its long history.

It shows that, despite the steady decline of the offshore U.S.-flag fleet - something that is unlikely to change - the industry can still wield considerable influence and convince policymakers that a strong rationale remains for its existence and prosperity.

The candidates have come to their affinity for this industry from very different directions. Vice President Gore is a friend of labor, and no one has a higher stake in the preservation of U.S.-flag ships in foreign trades than maritime unions such as the Masters, Mates & Pilots; the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association and the Seafarers International Union.

Gore has long since repudiated the draft report of his reinventing government initiative of 1993, which foolishly floated the idea of eliminating virtually all U.S. maritime laws, including the Jones Act, cargo preference and vessel operating subsidies. The draft barely saw the light of day before it was declared dead, and though Gore denied being behind those specific recommendations, it reminded the inexperienced vice president of the hornet's nest easily stirred by attempted tampering with maritime laws without careful consideration.

Those days are now long gone. Maritime labor, which will not easily forget that episode, asked for and reportedly received clear assurances that Gore was on their side. That much was made clear in the Democratic Party platform, which declared that ''we must_ensure that investment in the infrastructure needed to support the military, including our maritime capability, is not ignored.''

Such thinking will probably extend to commercial regulation, where the AFL-CIO Maritime Trades Department has said it supports maintenance of the 1998 Ocean Shipping Reform Act. That doesn't bode well for efforts supported by freight intermediaries to eliminate antitrust immunity.

While there is no new proposal to extend or replace the Maritime Security Program, which subsidizes a 47-ship fleet of U.S.-flag liner vessels, it is not inconceivable that Gore would support such legislation when the current program expires in 2005.

Though he has had less involvement with U.S.-flag shipping, candidate Bush appears equally supportive of the industry, but for different reasons. A cornerstone of his campaign is rebuilding the military, and there are indications he is sympathetic to the concept of a fifth arm of defense that the merchant marine provides through programs such as MSC and the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA) program.

So, while the next few years are likely to bring reforms in many sectors of the economy, shipping probably won't be one of them.

A different set of issues is raised by the question that shipping interests are watching perhaps most closely: Who will pay for dredging? The Clinton administration's idea for replacing the doomed Harbor Maintenance Tax was a $900 million-a-year tax on shipping, to pay for maintaining channel depths as well as new deepening projects.

On this question, Gore cannot be counted on as a friend of the industry. Washington insiders believe that as president, Gore would follow a path no different from that of President Clinton - taking the narrow view that ''freight doesn't vote'' instead of recognizing that dredging promotes trade and trade is good for the nation. The more pro-business Bush would probably hesitate before sticking the industry with such an enormous bill.

The fact remains, however, that this year's doldrums for the dredging tax is an indication of things to come: the idea faces serious opposition from a more realist Congress and is unlikely to be passed, regardless of which party ends up controlling the House and Senate. Gore should recognize that and fashion a more realistic proposal, perhaps one that uses Customs duties to pay for dredging.