Turning the corner

Turning the corner

In the throes of the DP World uproar, it seemed like there was no telling where it would lead. It was like a fissure had been suddenly opened, exposing the most isolationist tendencies of U.S. politics as represented in the most extreme of the 70 or so congressional bills that the controversy had left in its wake.

Legislation to force 100 percent inspections of containers was benign compared with various proposals to limit foreign control of critical U.S. infrastructure, including seaport operations, or to prohibit outright certain entities from operating at U.S. ports.

Given where this could have gone, there is a sense of relief at what appears to be a coalescing of momentum around legislation in the House and Senate that, in essence, supports and strengthens existing strategy rather than attempts to rewrite the playbook on port security.

For international logistics, the danger was in the possibility that the opposite would happen - that the policies developed by the Department of Homeland Security in cooperation with and largely supported by industry would have been crushed under a marauding Congress with an agenda driven by election-year politics.

Evidence that cooler heads are prevailing is coming primarily in the form of what appears to be growing momentum surrounding the Green-Lane Maritime Cargo Security Act authored by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Patty Murray, D-Wash. Introduced last year, well before the Dubai controversy and emerging out of the senatorial offices that have paid more attention to cargo security than any other, the bill has been given a serious boost by the newfound interest in the subject in Washington. "It's definitely on the move," said Peter Friedmann, a Washington attorney who represents several trade and transportation interests. "Of the cargo-security legislation moving forward, this is far and away the most likely to be enacted."

Among other things, the bill would direct the DHS to develop a strategy to strengthen security for all modes of transportation, create an Office of Cargo Security Policy within the DHS to ensure that strategy gets implemented, require 100 percent radiation inspections and strengthen the incentives for importers to obtain "green lane" clearance for their goods at the border.

You don't hear much about the DHS lacking statutory authority to improve port and supply-chain security. Rather, this story over the last three years has been of a department that's proved itself unable to take the next big steps necessary to improve port security. It needs outside pressure to focus the needed attention on port security, which this bill provides by setting a timetable for progress, for example, by giving the department six months to establish minimum standards and procedures for securing containers in transit to the U.S.

"I am deeply concerned by the slow pace of the department's agenda," Collins said in a speech at the recent spring conference of the American Association of Port Authorities in Washington. "For example, the department has been working on a regulation setting a minimum standard for mechanical seals on containers for more than two years. The Transportation Worker Identification Card has languished for four years."

She also observed that the federal government "has yet to establish protocols for resuming port operations and for deciding which cargo would be released first after an attack."

What Friedmann and others observe is that this bill and its House counterpart, introduced by Republican Dan Lungren of California, build on the efforts of the past four-and-a-half years, creating a necessary continuity in policy. "There is a bright side," Friedmann said. "Despite all the political grandstanding on Dubai Ports, these leading bills support the approach that has already been implemented since 9/11, which is, in my mind and that of most of the trade community, a rational approach to port security."

The appreciation the industry feels toward Collins was expressed in her receipt of the AAPA's Port Person of the Year award for 2006. This was a genuine expression of gratitude for a lawmaker who has taken the time to understand the complex issues involved in trade and propose remedies to the problem of port vulnerability.

Collins, like the industry, does not minimize the threat, pointing out as she did how a crane operator discovered 32 Chinese inside two containers at the Port of Los Angeles a few days after she toured the port last year, representing a total failure of the current port-security system. Collins was right when she told the industry, "We truly are on the same page."