As Richard J. Daschbach, chairman of the Federal maritime Commission (FMC), sees it, both US overseas commerce and the US maritime industry itself are at a crucial political and economic turning point.
If the American public -- and its elected lawmakers -- are willing to work together to reach an agreement on even a minimal national maritime policy, then, he believes, the US merchant fleet could see a resurgence of growth that would once again propel the United States into its traditional role as a great maritime nation.
The call for "unified US shipping policies" at both the government and industry level, he maintained in a recent interview, has never been greater.
And while that means that the traditionally neutral FMC must not by itself be the source for restoring the competitive role of the US merchant fleet, the commission must ensure that its regulatory policies "complement other maritime statues" that in part promote the US merchant fleet.
What is most needed for the commission, he suggests, is elimination of regulations that put privately owned US carriers at a disadvantage compared with state-owned or heavily subsidized overseas carriers. But at the same time, he stresses, this does not mean the commission should go for allout deregulation, as happened in the airline industry.
Rather, he maintains, what is needed are simpler procedures as well as reduced paper work and legal requirements.
Mr. Daschbach's term as commission chariman runs through June 1982. The FMC is the primary independent federal agency responsible for regulating the US maritime industry. Yet, in an age when US ports and the shipping business have become increasingly computerized and marked by often dazzling technological innovation, much of the nation's main shipping regulations date back to legislation enacted in 1916.
If Mr. Daschbach, an outgoing individual, has his way, the commission's regulatory framework will be brought sharply up to date during the two remaining years of his current term:
* He says he is particularly pleased with reform legislation recently passed by the Senate which substantially streamlines FMC regulatory procedures. Among other issues, the legislation -- the Ocean Shipping Act of 1980 -- broadens anti-trust exemptions granted conferences of liners (groups of ocean carriers) that meet to set rates and reach other agreements. The bill also provides for the development of shippers' councils, which would also be free of anti-trust laws.
The legislation also substantially frees up the independence of the agency vis-a-vis the Office of Management and Budget, within the Executive Office of the White House. The Maritime commission is required to obtain prior approval from the Budget Office about its legislative proposals,as well as any testimony given before Congress.
* The Commission is undertaking a careful review of its regulation of shipping activities involving Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and Alaska. The commission is looking at ways it might reduce regulations or shipping costs for these noncontinental US port areas. Mr. Daschbach hopes to deliver recommendations for necessary changes to Congress early next year.
* At the same time, commission is exploring ways to streamline internal operating procedures -- and the administrative framework for what has traditionally been looked upon by the maritime industry as a very cumbersome and bureaucratic agency -- within the agency itself. The chairman hopes to have any major restructing of the commission -- which would not require congressional approval -- under way in a month or so.
Many influential lawmakers in recent years have been critical of what they feel has been the commission's lengthy delays in reaching decisions on shipping transactions. Mr. Daschbach says he thinks the commission, since his arrival in 1977, has been able to resolve a hefty "backlog of formal proceedings that in some cases were eight years old."
All told, he says, there were between 60 and 80 of these cases. Now, he says , they are out of the way.
Will Congress -- and that essentially means the House of Representatives -- be able to enact an overall maritime regulatory reform package this year?
The House is at present considering a far more comprehensive measure than the regulatory bill enacted by the Senate. Among other things, the omnibus House bill would alter rules for costly federal subsidies for ship construction and operation.
Precisely because the House bill involves both regulatory and promotional matters, that overall approach is not expected to clear Congress. Still, Mr. Daschbach maintains he is not totally disheartened by what now looks like a political impasse between the two chambers. Rather, he says, the commission will still look upon the Senate bill as the starting point for any subsequent final legislation later this year or in 1981.
Will US shippers take advantage of greater regulatory reform? Mr. Daschbach is essentially upbeat. "Given the opportunity," he says, US flag carriers will pool their skills to develop even newer technologies, newer markets, and eventually, a resurgent and healthy US fleet.
But that, he avers, requires action and cooperation now -- and the clock is clearly ticking away against a US maritime industry trhat has slipped from first place worldwide to 10th or 11th place.