by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) The FAA is headed by a pilot, NASA is headed by an astronaut, the US Marine Corps is headed by a Marine but for the fourth time in a row, and during the worst shipping crisis of the century, the US Department of Transportation, has appointed someone to the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) who is not a captain and has no commercial shipping experience.
Yesterday afternoon, President Biden announced his intention to nominate Rear Admiral Ann Phillips, US Navy (Retired), as the next US Maritime Administrator, a position that has been vacant since Rear Admiral Mark Buzby stepped down following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January.
Phillips is a highly decorated Navy leader with a long list of accomplishments and is highly respected by everyone gCaptain has interviewed. She was head of the Navy’s Climate Change Task Force and is a highly sought after consultant on climate security issues. She holds an MBA. She was chairman of a local government Sea Level Rise Preparedness and Resilience project. She once captained a Navy warship. The appointment looks great on paper except for one kinda big problem. This is not a warship position. It’s a commercial shipping appointment and she has zero experience aboard any commercial ships. She does not even have experience leading navy military sealift ships.
The US Maritime Administrator
The position of US Maritime Administrator is traditionally held by a commercial shipowner or captain, but President Obama left the position unfilled for years then selected a former congressional staffer, David Matsuda. He was highly unpopular and was pushed out in 2013. Obama followed the appointment with a relatively low ranking navy submarine commander Chip Jaenichen.
The Trump administration appointed US Navy Rear Admiral Mark Buzby for the position. Buzby, while not a commercial mariner or ship owner, was a graduate of the US Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), ran sealift operations for the Navy, was on the board of directors of Carnival Cruise Line, and spent his first year traveling around the country, meeting with ship captains and commercial maritime stake holders. He reached out and listened to stakeholder needs. Buzby became highly popular within the industry on his promise to publish a new US Maritime Strategy to resuscitate the US Merchant Marine. He did write that strategy but it was lost in the malaize of government bureaucracy.
Mark Buzby did, however, accomplish one seemingly impossible task, he saved Aker’s Phillidelphia Shipyard from closing by purchasing four new state maritime academy training ships (NSMVs), valued at over $1.5 billion. Construction of the NSMVs supports over 1,000 direct shipyard jobs in Philadelphia. Buzby also convinced the US Transportation Command to do a major “turbo-activation” of the Ready Reserve Fleet to prove the abysmal state of our nation’s readiness to move materials for war.
Buzby was popular, but he had several failures. Despite working with USMMA alumni to roll out a major advertising campaign to increase funding for the school, that funding never materialized. He failed to expand the US Maritime Service. He failed to make public his new National Maritime strategy (the one MARAD eventually did get approved was a lightly edited copy of a previous failed strategy). He failed to get the US Navy to include commercial shipping and sealift in their strategy. He failed to fund the Short Sea Distribution and Short Sea Shipping networks he championed.
Many of these failures were not his fault. The Trump Administration arrived with three major shipowners in cabinet position (Chao, Ross and Tillerson), Trump arranged weekly meetings between Buzby and his top advisor (Navarro), opened a maritime desk in the Council of Economic Advisers, and brought maritime experts in to advise the US Export-Import Bank. At the time congress was lead by Senator Mitch McConnel who married into one the world’s most successful shipping families. But despite a promising start, Buzby’s new policies got pushed to Trump’s second term, a term that never happened. Senior Washington sources also claim that his boss, Elaine Chao, lost interest in MARAD after the New York Times published an article critical of her family’s shipping fortunes.
Buzby’s final act as administrator was endorsing a licensed ship captain as his replacement but Buttigieg never called that nominee for an interview. Biden appointed no ship owners to his cabinet, he closed the White House maritime desk, and delayed his MARAD appointment for 278 days. The Biden administration seemigly cares so little about shipping they have even forgot to recall critical republican appointed delegates to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London.
“I respect the hell out of Buzby,” one White House insider told gCaptain. “He did a lot of great work but it’s already been lost or forgotten. Some of his work is classified, some were boxed up by Biden aids, but what really killed his legacy was a lack of continuity at MARAD.”
Numerous sources inside the beltway have told gCaptain that MARAD is fundamentally broken. Nearly a decade of neglect by the Obama Administration left MARAD with a broken, tired, and ineffective workforce. Buzby made only one major internal move of significance, replacing the highly unpopular Obama selected Army Colonel running USMMA with a major shipping CEO. “The rest of MARAD he naively thought he could motivate and foster, as he had done many times during his naval career,” says a US Navy Officer who works with MARAD. “But commercial shipping is not something the Navy understands. The dead wood inside MARAD showed some signs of life under his strong leadership but, once he left, the place reverted to infighting and morass. If Buz had fired more people like Hellis, and replaced them with shipping experts, his legacy might have continued.”
The Global Shipping Crisis
The appointment of Rear Admiral Ann Phillips comes as the shipping crisis dominates the world media headlines and the USMMA, which MARAD runs, faces the biggest scandal in its history. Biden has taken strong action in response to these problems. This summer he elected a port envoy to fix the shipping crisis. Last month MARAD hired a high level GS15 to handle media relations. Just last week took MARAD took strong and positive action against allegations of rape at USMMA.
Each action however has been a misstep. To the untrained eye the 139 ships waiting to leave Los Angeles may look like a port crisis that can be solved by a US Port Envoy, it is not. It is a SHIPPING crisis. Numerous ports around the United States including Oakland and San Diego, have extra capacity, what we don’t have is anyone with recent SHIPPING experience at MARAD directing the SHIPS to empty ports. This week Biden addressed the nation with a plan to prevent containergeddon from ruining Christmas but experts say his plan is doomed to fail because, again, not a single ship captain was called to give advice on how to fix this SHIPPING crisis.
While MARAD’s strong and decisive action to address reported rapes initially looked highly productive, it is not enough. It has now been weeks after the allegations were made public and no arrests have been made. MARAD has also failed to engage commercial shipping organizations with experience handling this problem, organizations like WISTA or Human Rights at Sea, or Safer Waves to address the wider industry problem of rapes.
(They have, thankfully, engaged with Woman Offshore or, at least, WO engaged them.)
Worse still is the fact, while addressing the topic of rape at USMMA, they have not issued a single statement about allegations of sexual assaults, hospitalizations, and coverups aboard MARAD owned training ships mastered by US Merchant Service captains who, while employed by state maritime academies, are uniformed officers sworn in and commissioned by MARAD.
And now with what Forbes has called Biden’s single most critical appointment, he appoints a highly capable and impressive leader to run MARAD but one with zero industry experience.
It is clear that President Biden and Secretary Buttigieg have good intentions but continually fail to consult the right experts.
“If the international space station was disintegrating as fast as our shipping and logistics network currently is,” said one ship owner at this week’s Connecticut Maritime Conference. “They would have experts of all types inside mission control, but astronauts would be reviewing each plan. Now we have a shipping crisis and not a single ship captain is called? Nuts.”
But you can’t blame Biden and Buttigieg and MARAD alone. MARAD has been pushed aside by politicians for many decades… and it’s not just a government problem, thousands of small businesses, large businesses, militaries, NGOs, and world councils are struggling to fight the problem yet none of them showed up for the United State’s single most important shipping conference of the year, the CMA conference. Neither did the world’s largest ship owners Maersk CMA CGM, and the US Navy. According to the President of CMA, Chris Aversano, attendance was fifty percent lower than pre-covid levels.
Driving into the nation’s most important shipping conference held just outside the world’s media capital, during the worst shipping crisis in decades, gCaptain was worried we wouldn’t even be able to get a media pass. We should not have worried, we were the only journalists who even bothered to attend.
It’s not just Biden who doesn’t understand shipping and is failing to consult with ship captains and ship owners, it’s media and logistics professionals around the world.
No wonder that Christmas will be canceled. Santa and the reindeer are getting lots of attention but nobody has asked the elves who maintain the sleigh what help they need.
Editorial Note: By all accounts, Rear Admiral Phillips, DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg, DOT Deputy Polly Trottenberg, and Secretary Deputy MARAD Administrator Lucinda Lessely are intelligent with solid leadership experience. The problem is not just about leadership experience up top, it’s failure to bring in experts at the senior SES and GS positions. If educated Phds like Sal Mercogliano, heads of top maritime organizations, like Ally Cedeno, shipping executives like Susan Heyman and John McCown, and real ship captains like Captain Robert Cook and Captain Kevin Stith are brought in… I am confident Phillips can lead them. The question is IF and when. -John
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