Farmers and grain shippers are against it. Coal miners and oil companies don't want it. Importers of bulk commodities such as sugar oppose it. The railroads are trying to kill it, cement and wallboard makers are lobbying against it, and the chemical manufacturers denounced it.
But despite that powerful lineup, which would probably doom most proposed legislation in Congress, the "Boggs bill" is still alive, and apparently gaining support.
The Boggs bill, named for its chief sponsor, Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.), would require a phased increase, over 15 years, in the percentage of bulk cargoes such as coal, grain and oil moving through U.S. ports that is carried on American ships. At present, U.S. vessels carry less than 4 percent of the tonnage; the Boggs bill would require an immediate increase to 5 percent, and an additional increase of 1 percent a year, up to 20 percent.
If enacted, this measure would stimulate the creation of thousands of jobs in the nation's moribund commercial shipyards--Boggs said 268 ships would be built over 15 years--and an estimated 8,800 shipboard jobs for American merchant sailors. The measure has the strong support of maritime and shipyard unions, and of the maritime industry's coterie of supporters on Capitol Hill.
But the bulk shippers, who represent some of the nation's biggest industries, are nearly unanimous in their opposition, because they say it would raise the cost of American products so much as to make them noncompetitive in world markets.
Boggs, whose home district in New Orleans is one of the nation's biggest bulk-cargo ports, has lined up 107 bipartisan cosponsors for the measure, including merchant marine subcommittee chairman Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y) and the ranking Republican, Rep. Gene Snyder (R-Ky.). An identical bill has been introduced in the Senate by Sens. Russell Long (D-La.) and Paul Trible (R-Va.).
At hearings before Biaggi's subcommittee last week, the contrast in views between supporters and opponents was so stark that it was hard to envision any compromise.
Boggs argued that "if we are to continue our commitment to our American merchant marine and if we truly want to maintain an American commercial shipbuilding capacity, then it is time for us to enact a cargo policy that will support the construction of American ships."
Shippers avoid American vessels because ships built in American yards are more costly to build than those built abroad and the labor costs for American crews are generally higher, requiring higher freight rates. But Boggs argued that her bill addresses that problem with a novel provision tying the cargo-reservation quota to a 15 percent reduction in the cost of building and manning American ships. The Secretary of Transportation would be empowered to set maximum freight rates, based on a presumption that shipbuilding and crew costs were being reduced accordingly.
"It can't possibly hurt the shippers to have reliable, modern new ships in an American fleet," she said.
This argument predictably failed to persuade the shippers.
John S. Bush Jr., representing National Gypsum Co. and other building materials producers, said enactment of the Boggs bill would be "a profoundly serious error." He said the bill's provisions were "anti-competitive . . . highly inflationary, dislocating and extremely wasteful of present capital assets."
George L. Berg Jr., of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said cargo reservation at the anticipated 20 percent level would reduce farm exports so sharply it would cut yield to farmers by 28 to 42 cents per bushel for corn, 38 to 61 cents for wheat and 39 to 53 cents for soybeans, cutting farm income by as much as $6.4 billion a year.
Representatives of the American Petroleum Institute said the bill would "undermine established U.S. policy supporting free international trade."
Snyder said "there may well be" a consensus in the full House in favor of the bill but warned the committee there was no point in passing a bill that would not be approved in the Republican-controlled Senate.