Future U.S. Merchant Mariners Deemed Non-Essential

Oct 16, 2013, 10:53AM EST
Future U.S. Merchant Mariners Deemed Non-Essential
USMMA students are sent home from Kings Point during the (partial) government shutdown. Why this should not surprise anybody.

U.S. Coast Guard veteran, maritime attorney and all-around maritime expert Dennis Bryant stole a bit of my (planned) thunder this week when he pointed out for all to see that both the U.S. Senate and House were crafting corrections to previous legislation that would, for all intents and purposes, allow U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) students and staff to return to campus. Most, if not all were sent home when the partial government shutdown kicked off, and as I pen this column, they are still cooling their heels at home. It is a collective sad state of affairs – beyond Kings Point and extending all the way to the sordid mess inside the beltway – but the decision to designate Kings Point personnel as “non-essential” simply perpetuates (and underscores) the longstanding benign neglect of the U.S. waterfront in general.


While their service academy cousins attend sailing regattas and play regularly scheduled football games, USMMA students and their professors are caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s difficult to imagine that the former activities are important enough to continue on unabated (and I do not care what funds them) while the training of future mariners that taxpayers foot the bill for; is not. It has been patiently explained to me that the difference between the other service academies and Kings Point involves the DOD and DHS oversight that the USMMA does not also enjoy.


In fact, I contacted the DOT’s U.S. Maritime Administration this week to find out just who is working and who was not. I got this cryptic reply from their PAO: “I am not in the office due to a lapse in funding. I will respond to your e-mail upon my return.” It turns out that Marad isn’t very important, either. We could argue that point beyond the cessation of hostilities inside the beltway (hopefully in the near future), but let’s keep our eye on the ball for the time being.


Additionally, I have had conversations with current and former USMMA personnel in the past week, both of whom shook their heads at what has happened and lamented the course of events there; not just in the past two weeks, but dating back far before the current crisis. We don’t have the time to list the blunders which have beset the federal maritime academy over the past ten years, but suffice it to say, they are many. On the other hand, distilling today’s headlines down to the lowest common denominator is easy: the federal government deems it important enough to fund the academy and pay the room, board and tuition of its students but ultimately doesn’t think any of it is important enough to keep up and running during times of national fiscal crisis. Consequently, if I was in any way involved in the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, I would be very, very nervous at this time.


The bigger problem unfortunately extends well past what’s happening (or not) at Kings Point. The same lack of priority extended to the domestic waterfront, U.S. flag ships and port infrastructure is merely being inflicted on perhaps the highest visibility involvement in domestic maritime policy that the federal government has today. So, while the furlough of Kings Point folks may invoke, at least for maritime professionals, a heightened sense of awareness of the serious nature of the current situation, we’ve really got much bigger fish to fry. For example, and having just returned from the annual meeting of the National Waterways Conference in Savannah, GA, it was made painfully clear – well before the really hard decisions that will necessarily follow today’s broader budget struggles – that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) does not have the money to do what is necessary to keep our waterways open and running efficiently. Indeed, one after another USACE presentations at the event carried the theme of “with less, you will get less.”


Separately, back at DHS headquarters, the Coast Guard is feeling the sting of budget cutbacks. And, the Maritime Security Program (MSP), a collective fleet of foreign-built (I love to throw that part in), U.S. flagged sealift vessels is probably going to get notably smaller. Somewhere, probably not at the Pentagon, I assure you, someone has decided that funding the military is “essential” but maintaining an adequate sealift capacity to support those efforts is not. No doubt they also connected the dots and decided that if we didn’t have any merchant ships, then there wasn’t any point to training mariners, either.


Like you, I don’t know when and how the current situation will resolve itself. By the time I can post this column on line, all of our problems – until the next budget battle rears its ugly head – might be solved. The temporary shuttering of Kings Point is but a tiny glimpse of a larger, dysfunctional national maritime policy that threatens to take down the economy in ways that the average taxpayer cannot fathom. That said; if it takes the temporary defunding of a federal academy to shed greater light onto the train wreck that typifies America’s current intermodal picture, then I’m all for it.


The ongoing budget battles in Washington seemingly focus on social entitlements, the so-called ObamaCare socialized medicine, defense spending, earmarks and other more widely publicized issues. Because of that reality, a likely casualty of any agreement, especially in the continuing climate fostered by sequestration, will be infrastructure and transportation funding. Within that broader line item, the waterfront will take a big hit. The situation at Kings Point is merely a subliminal message sent by Washington to let you know what’s coming next. Count on it. – MarPro.


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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at jkeefe@maritimeprofessional.com or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.

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Clark Dodge
Joe. thanks for the posting. It is very obvious the crazies in the GOP have no idea what they did or are doing by their terrible stunt. The figures are or will continue to rise as we learn more. Now the cost of over $24 Billion to the American taxpayers. It will be a cold day in Hell before GOP members get elected to congress. They not only hurt the American Merchant Marine, but hurt and continue To hurt all those associated with the government.
10/17/2013 2:31:15 PM
Don Yearwood
The staff at the USMMA was called back with an e-mail before 9 am this morning. Told to report today or take a leave day. Also they will be paid for their "vacation". So it would appear that the only persons impacted by the closure of the USMMA were the midshipmen. Clever government and great management at its best!!!!
10/17/2013 4:34:07 PM
Captain Vic
Other than lament the defunding of Kings Point I see nothing in this article convincing me Kings Pointers are deserving of a free ride at the taxpayers (my) expense. Yes, many of our waterways / ports are in a sad state of neglect but waterways and Kings Point are 2 completely different issues.

Please lets not confuse port infrastructure etc with Kings Point. Let's also not confuse Kings Pointers with the real military. You can dress Kings Point cadets in military style uniforms and march them around with those silly fake rifles but that does not make them military.

Other than a ridiculously meaningless reserve Navy commitment I see no benefit to the US by giving Kings Pointers a free ride when they could just as easily be attending other maritime schools, like Cal Maritime, out of there own pockets. Last I checked starting 3rd mates / engineers are making upwards of $10,000 a month, straight out of college. Let them pay there own way just like the rest of us.

As a 12 Merchant Mariner who climbed the ranks from Ordinary to Master 1600, at my own expense, no one has ever explained to me why the students at Kings Point can't pay there own way in life, just like the rest of us.

Captain Vic
10/21/2013 9:23:25 PM
Joseph Keefe
I don't often add my own comments to the blog board, but in this case I did want to clarify a couple of things - at least from my point of view.

First, I don't think that the neglect of the domestic waterfront and its exclusion from our bigger intermodal picture is a "GOP" thing or something that emanates from the other side of the aisle. It is a bipartisan effort, with equally devastating impact.

Secondly, within my posting, I didn't advocate for or against the concept of a federal merchant marine academy. What I did say was that if the federal government feels it important enough to fund such an institution and pay for the room, board and education of about 1,000 of these cadets annually, then I would also say that this position is in direct contradiction to the idea that they are are "non-essential."

We can argue about the other part all day. But, I'm not going to.
10/30/2013 10:24:13 AM