WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

In Defense Of Maritime Advisory Committees

On June 14, President Trump issued an executive order that didn’t receive as much media attention as, perhaps, it should have.

Titled “Executive Order on Evaluating and Improving the Utility of Federal Advisory Committees,” the order instructed federal agencies to “evaluate the need for each of its current advisory committees established under  section 9(a)(2) of FACA [the Federal Advisory Committee Act] and those advisory committees established under section 9(a)(1) that are authorized by law but not required by statute.”

The order directs each agency to terminate “at least one-third of its current [9(a)(2)] committees,” including those whose “stated objectives have been accomplished,” those whose “subject matter or work has become obsolete,” and those whose “primary functions have been assumed by another entity.” It caps a government-wide total of advisory committees at 350 for all agencies. It sets up waiver procedures for those advisory committees an agency feels are necessary.

The order applies to “discretionary” committees, or those without a congressional charter. Our industry has several important discretionary committees, such as the River Industry Executive Task Force, which works closely with the Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard on river closures, vessel safety and other issues.

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The order doesn’t apply, however, to congressionally authorized advisory committees. Two of these are the Merchant Mariner Personnel Advisory Committee (MERPAC) and the Merchant Mariner Medical Advisory Committee, in which industry representatives, who volunteer their time, get a chance to interact with Coast Guard regulators on many important issues affecting our industry.

Among the most important “chartered” committees to our industry is the Inland Waterways Users Board, created to make recommendations to the Army and to Congress on investment priorities using resources from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. Sometimes a discretionary committee can become authorized by Congress; such was the case with MERPAC, which was founded in 1992 but congressionally authorized in 2014.

Another very important group is the Towing Safety Advisory Committee, which has been deeply involved in dialoguing with the Coast Guard throughout the development of the Subchapter M regulations. Its charter was not renewed by the Coast Guard because it was reauthorized under another name in a congressional bill, which means that it must be re-established from scratch—unless the Coast Guard decides to re-establish it under its present name.

Advisory committees are not perfect vehicles. Some serving members of the brown-water industry have felt that some maritime committees are too heavily weighted toward blue-water interests, at a time when inland towboats make up the overwhelming majority of licensed vessels.

Nor are federal agencies obliged to take account of recommendations from the committees. It’s possible to have amicable, informative meetings and still wind up with a head-scratching regulatory decision.

But all who have served on them agree that they are an irreplaceable forum for communicating with regulators, raising important issues and helping to resolve them—without unnecessary regulations when possible. When regulation is coming, it’s much better to be in the room with the regulators beforehand.

Serving on such committees is a way of maintaining dialogue not just between industry and regulators, but between different parts of the industry as well. Much of the work these committees do happens behind the scenes, but the results affect everyone in the industry.

Matt Lagarde, assistant vice president HSSE at Ingram Barge Company and a veteran of several advisory committees, calls them a “collection point for an enormous amount of wisdom,” and says they are “fundamental to making sure we get things right.”

At the end of the day, the reason so many top barge executives and operators donate their valuable time and expertise to serve on these committees is that doing so brings immeasurable benefits to our industry.