The yacht owners came, along with the merchant marine companies; the ferry boat, tow boat, shrimp boat and tuna boat operators; the people who make fish meal, and those who dock oil tankers. Such an armada of marine interests yesterday again helped torpedo President Reagan's proposal to levy "user fees" on those who benefit from Coast Guard services.
It didn't take long. Ninteen witnessess lined up to attack the initiative before a House Merchant Marine and Fisheries subcommittee, but chairman Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.) declared it dead before any had a chance to speak.
"As far as I'm concerned, no user fee bill will be considered by this subcommittee until I become convinced this administration is serious about bolstering the Coast Guard," Studds said.
Even though the administration has offered to exempt the 4.7 million owners of pleasure boats under 20 feet long, the user fee proposal ran into heavy criticism from both Democrats and Republicans on the Coast Guard and navigation panel.
While sympathetic to any idea that could trim the huge looming budget deficits, Rep. Thomas B. Evans Jr. (R-Del.) said he would not be the first to sponsor the Reagan user fee bill. "I'm not about to introduce the bill with 30,000 boat owners in Delaware and Nov. 2 election day coming in a matter of months."
In fact, the administration has been unable to find any member of the House or Senate willing to introduce its legislation, nor has any other congressional panel thought seriously enough of the idea to hold hearings.
Richard Schwartz, executive director of the Boat Owners Association of the United States, offered one explanation. "There's 60 million of us on the waterways out there. That's more than one quarter of the population of the United States."
This is not the first time the Reagan administration has run into heavy weather on user fees from those who have to pay them. Reagan's first proposal to levy fees for Coast Guard services in March, 1981, was withdrawn only three months later when it ran into a storm of protest and the administration could not find a congressional sponsor.
This year, the administration advanced a revised proposal that would raise $439 million, or 36 percent of the Coast Guard operating budget, with fees for many services, such as inspecting boats and tanker terminals. The fees would range from a $25 charge for recreational boats between 20 and 26 feet long to $14,000 for twice-annual inspection of oil tanker terminals.
Darrell M. Trent, deputy secretary of transportation, defended the administration's proposal on grounds that it would shift some costs of the Coast Guard from all taxpayers to maritime users "who directly benefit from these services."
He pointed out that after last year's outcry, the administration decided not to levy charges on pleasure boats under 20 feet. Also, the administration agreed not to levy user fees to cover the cost of emergency search and rescue efforts in "life-threatening" situations.
Nor, he said, would the government try to recover the costs of such Coast Guard activities as polar ice operations, research, military readiness and enforcement of drug smuggling and immigration laws.