How MARAD attempted to manipulate Congress at the expense of USMMA [Updated]

[UPDATE: In this post, we  put together the pieces of the puzzle that showed how MARAD was attempting to manipulate Congress. Another piece of the puzzle is added with this update.  The changes are shown in yellow highlighting]

How USMMA midshipmen become collateral damage in MARAD’s quest to pressure Congress into solving SUNY Maritime’s Training Ship Crisis.

(This is the fourth and final (and long-delayed!) post in the series we ran on MARAD’s behind-the-scenes manipulation of the last Congress. We described MARAD’s work to force Congress to bail out the six state maritime schools by funding a $1.8 billion  fleet of new  training ships. We explained MARAD’s abuse of USMMA’s sea year to aid that effort.  Part 1 described the surreptitious removal of language in a Senate bill that would have authorized “ship sharing.” Allowing the state maritime schools to share their training ships would protect the schools in the event one of their training ships was out of service. Part 2 detailed MARAD’s, the state schools’, and the state school lobbyist’s (K&L Gates)  quest to get Congress to fund the $1.8 billion fleet. It explained how that proposed ship sharing language would have undermined the state schools’ efforts to create a crisis-like atmosphere to justify the appropriation and thus had to be removed.   Part 3 revealed that the former Deputy Chief of Staff to then- Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was now working for LMI on the USMMA culture study and exposed her demonstrated hostility to USMMA stakeholders and her inherent conflicts of interest in being involved in the study after being directly involved in many aspects of USMMA administration that are the subject of the study.)

The majority of sea year training for the state maritime schools occurs on their respective training ships, augmented for some students by time on commercial ships.  By law, the state schools cannot be required to share those ships with one another, even though the ships are owned by the federal government and are only on loan to the state schools. A state maritime school without a training ship will be unable to provide students with the training required to get a license.  That would be the end of the program at that school.  The school could elect to provide its own training ship — much the way colleges and universities fund buildings on their campuses — but none have elected to do so, preferring the federal government subsidy instead.

In Part 1 and Part 2 in this series, we commented on the crisis SUNY Maritime faced with the impending decommissioning of its training vessel in 2019 (unless unforeseen events cause it to be decommissioned sooner). [Contrary to statements being made within MARAD last year, the training ship was upgraded with a $6 million state-of-the-art bridge navigation system and a new boiler control system in the last quarter of 2016. Presumably, these improvements have extended the life of the ship beyond 2019.]  We demonstrated that someone had surreptitiously altered language in Senate Bill 2829 that would have alleviated this crisis by allowing the Secretary of Transportation to require one of the other five maritime schools to share its training ship with SUNY; and we explained that the most logical reason for deleting such language is to allow the six state maritime schools to use the manufactured crisis of SUNY-needing-a-new-ship-and-having-no-alternative (thanks to the deletion of the ship sharing amendment) to help justify MARAD’s effort to get Congress to fund $1.8 billion for six new training vessels.

The deliberate decision to keep things at a crisis level is merely one piece of a much bigger puzzle.  That piece and several other pieces (see Part 3), have slowly dropped into place. What emerged is an ugly picture. It is a picture of MARAD deliberately creating crises (yes, plural) in an effort to manipulate Congress to do MARAD’s bidding . . . to fund a fleet of new state maritime school training ships.

This past April, with only nine months until the political leadership at DOT and MARAD would be replaced by leaders selected by a new president, the administration apparently decided to make one last, forceful, push for the training ship funding.

Let’s start assembling the puzzle:

  • In early March 2016, as described in detail here, former Maritime Administrator Chip Jaenichen and Academy Superintendent James Helis testified in Congress about the state of the maritime industry and state of the Academy.  Helis spent a major portion of his testimony detailing the Academy’s efforts to address SA/SH on campus. As for SA/SH at sea year?  Crickets — because the administration had not yet cooked up the false narrative that there was a problem with SA/SH during sea year.
  • Despite the fact that no one was claiming a SA/SH problem during sea year, on April 20, 2016, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate (S.2829) that included a requirement that “the Maritime Administrator shall convene a working group to examine methods to improve the prevention of, and response to, any sexual harassment or sexual assault that occurs during a Cadet’s Sea Year experience with the United States Merchant Marine Academy.” Inexplicably, the legislation provided that this “working group” would be dominated by representatives from the six state maritime schools who were to “assess whether the United States Merchant Marine Academy should continue with sea year training on privately owned vessels or change its curricula to provide alternative training.” (Emphasis added.)

Think about that for a minute.  At this point, no one has said a word even hinting that there is a SA/SH problem during sea year — let alone on commercial ships — yet MARAD has persuaded the U.S. Senate to consider creating a working group dominated by state maritime schools (whose institutions all use training ships) and task them with recommending to Congress whether USMMA’s distinctive, in fact envied, sea year on commercial ships should be replaced with “alternative training.” And the only “alternative training” not already in use by USMMA would be putting USMMA midshipmen on training ships.  Not only that, but this part of the study wasn’t even linked to the working group’s mission of addressing SA/SH. MARAD was proposing that this working group (with only two people from USMMA identified to be in the group) be tasked with recommending radical changes to sea year without any suggestion that such a curriculum change be necessary because of SA/SH issues.

Leaving the Senate and switching to the House, the following occurred:

  • On May 4, 2016, HR.4909 is “reported” (introduced) in the House of Representatives. This bill contains two significant provisions.

 1)  It authorizes (subject to Congress appropriating the necessary funds) MARAD to contract for the construction of a state maritime training vessel anticipated to cost $300 million (and includes a line authorization (still subject to appropriation) of $85 million in FY17 for this purpose; and

2) It repeals existing law (49 U.S.C. § 109) which stated that, “Amounts may not be appropriated for the purchase or construction of training vessels for State maritime academies unless the Secretary has approved a plan for sharing training vessels between State maritime academies

    • As described in Part 1, sometime between April and the end of June 2016, someone surreptitiously removed from S.2829 the ship sharing language that would have allowed SUNY Maritime — which officially was to be without a training ship after 2019 [now extended due to the vessel’s dry-docking and modernization in the last quarter of 2016] — to share one of the other state maritime schools’ training ships.
    • April 2016 – Texas Maritime announces that its superintendent is retiring.  When the opening is posted, key job responsibilities for the new superintendent include “Extensive collaboration with internal and external stakeholder groups including… the maritime industry for cadet sea berths…” Former Deputy Maritime Administrator Michael “Anchorman” Rodriguez applies for this position while at the same time he is involved in cancelling USMMA sea year on commercial ships  (which opens those cadet sea berths to the state maritime schools like Texas).  Rodriguez will later get the job.
    • June 2016 — The SA/SH during sea year crisis is concocted and sea year is cancelled.
    • Summer 2016 — Rodriguez — who fully supported the sea year stand down cancellation — is applying and interviewing to become the Superintendent of Texas Maritime (and ultimately gets the job).
    • Sept. 7, 2016 — the RFQ for the culture study is issued. As we pointed out almost immediately, the RFQ scope of work included making proposals for replacing sea year on commercial ships. And, in what proved to be a prescient observation, we noted:

      “it’s not a stretch to believe that MARAD is afraid that the offensive language in S.2829 [regarding looking for alternatives to sea year on commercial ships] will be stripped out in Committee and is using the RFQ to create its own study commission to accomplish the same goal”

    • Sept. 15, 2016 –DOT/MARAD, having been caught trying to slip a study of alternatives to sea year into the RFQ scope of work, issues an amendment that claims that it was just an accident.  They didn’t really mean to do that. We expressed skepticism.


  • Sept. 23, 2016 — (Homecoming):  Jaenichen informs the alumni that sea year is restored, but not on commercial vessels.  Cadets from the state maritime schools continue to fill the billet vacancies on commercial ships created by the absence of USMMA midshipmen from their sea year.
  • Dec. 2016 — Congress adopts language in the National Defense Authorization Act that mandates that MARAD adopt criteria within 90 days that will allow commercial shipping companies to carry Academy midshipmen during sea year,  and removes the proposed language that would have the working group recommend changing USMMA’s sea year on commercial ships to “alternative training.”
  • Jan. 2017 —  Former Secretary of Transportation Foxx’s discredited, $363,000 LMI culture audit (which is supposed to address the culture for SA/SH (if any) on commercial ships) is delayed by a month and its final report includes a recommendation unrelated to addressing SA/SH that — “TADA!” — calls into question the use of sea year on commercial ships except as part of a “capstone program.” Our prescience and skepticism is proven to be well-founded.
  • Jan. 2017 — As the past administration was on its way out the door, MARAD tasked the working group created by the National Defense Authorization Act to evaluate the findings and recommendations of the LMI culture study.  So Congress took the language about the working group studying the Academy’s sea year curriculum out of the law; and MARAD simply put it back in by getting the LMI report to include such a recommendation and then instructing the working group to study the LMI recommendations.

All of the above leads to only one reasonable conclusion:

The cancellation of sea year based upon the SA/SH false narrative was nothing but a manufactured crisis  to build support for converting USMMA’s sea year to training vessel-based curriculum — which in turn would help justify building the training vessels for the six state maritime academies.

Make no mistake about it, the state maritime schools would benefit from the elimination of the USMMA sea year on commercial ships because it would allow the state schools to argue that they could accommodate USMMA midshipmen on their brand-spanking-new training vessels – if only Congress would fund them.

It’s hard to justify spending 1.8 billion dollars to build six ships that will create (at most) a total of 75 licensed graduates per year with maritime service obligations and military commitments. It’s a much easier sell if you can assert that the ships will also provide training platforms for the 425-450 midshipmen at USMMA that participate in sea year every year and help produce an additional 225 licensed graduates annually (with much longer maritime service obligations and military commitments than is imposed on the state school cadets receiving the federal stipend).

[updated on 2/28/2017 to clarify a few points and correct some typos.]


    • I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it: There are many people behind the scenes who are assisting in this effort, including with this blog. I have an excellent unofficial editor. Too often when writing it is easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees and my editor frequently helps bring an additional level of clarity to the posts. And many times, as in this post, it is someone else who first saw the forest — saw the clues and figured out what MARAD was up to — and then gave the idea to me to put into a post. So a hearty thanks to all the anonymous contributors.

  1. Thank You Mr. Simpson. Again… concise, accurate and, unlike past statements coming out of the Academy and the old MARAD itself, easily open to challenge in a public forum if someone actually had the facts to challenge you with. In eight months, I haven’t seen that happen.

    I would like to ask on this forum a question as someone who is totally uneducated on certain issues so please feel free to correct me. I assume we want the grads from the state academies to have good training ships. After all, their kids will often be sailing with ours in the future and for all of their benefit, we want them as well trained and capable as possible. Obviously, older and more obsolete ships such as the Empire State may present a problem in that regard.

    My question is this–Why can’t the state academies be given access to some of the reserve ships on a regular basis for training. My understanding is that these ships have to be in condition to leave on short notice anyway and may be somewhat more modern. Couldn’t they be taken out for longer periods for training purposes on a rotating basis.
    The cost of that ship is already built into the federal budget and the academies could crew them with the same people who are crewing the training ships they have now. In addition, maybe some of these ships can be put into service actually delivering cargo on the training voyage, thus offsetting at least some of the cost. This would provide the SMAs with more modern ships without the additional capital investment of building new training ships.

    Just an idea that I’ve thought about. The only negative that I can think of is that these ships actually have to be ready on short notice in an emergency and may be unavailable while out at sea, but isn’t there a way to adjust for that somehow?

    I would love to hear from folks who actually understand how this works. As I said, this is an uneducated question. I will not be insulted by any answers provided that point out my lack of knowledge. I am not a mariner.

    • Parent, to address your question, one of the main differences between a training ship and the reserve ships is the berthing arrangements. The larger state schools need berthing for roughly 300 cadets, as I recall. My next post is going to touch on an alternative to brand new ships. Stay tuned. Probably later today.

Comments are closed.