House lawmakers introduce port security bill

Legislation would provide about $800 million annually for maritime security and set new requirements for DHS.

Two House lawmakers on Tuesday announced a bipartisan bill to overhaul maritime security and strengthen cargo inspections at foreign and U.S. ports.

The Security and Accountability for Every (SAFE) Port Act would authorize about $800 million to be spent annually and set new requirements that the Homeland Security Department must meet in order to strengthen maritime and cargo security. The bill was drafted by Reps. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., and Jane Harman, D-Calif.

"We have worked to develop comprehensive, bipartisan legislation that will improve the security of our national ports," Lungren and Harman said in a joint statement. "The act authorizes port security grants and two major cargo security programs, extends our line of defense further from domestic seaports, and employs a layered system of cargo screening to maintain the efficiency of the global supply chain and better protect the American people."

House Homeland Security Committee ranking member Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the legislation is overdue, and even more should be done to strengthen agencies responsible for maritime security.

"The bill today is a step in the right direction, but the past month has laid bare that deeper gaps exist in our port security," Thompson said. "Our coasts will not be secure until we have both a 21st century Coast Guard and a Customs agency protecting our nation."

Port security continues to receive heightened congressional attention in the wake of the Dubai Ports World deal. Lawmakers might still seek expedited action on port security legislation even after the United Arab Emirates-based DP World announced last week that it would transfer full control of its operations at U.S. seaports to a U.S. entity.

Officials from DHS and the port industry will testify Thursday on the House bill. Witnesses include Jayson Ahern, Customs and Border Protection assistant commissioner for field operations, and Coast Guard Cpt. Brian Salerno, deputy director for inspections and compliance.

Lungren and other lawmakers plan to travel to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach Friday to discuss the legislation.

The bill is similar to legislation offered last November by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Collins said Monday that she hopes to have a hearing on the Senate bill during the first week of April and has not yet scheduled a markup. "I want to move the bill this year, but I haven't focused on when the markup would be," she said.

Both the House and Senate bills would authorize about $800 million in spending annually on maritime security. Both bills also would set aside separate annual funding for port security grants, putting lawmakers at odds with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

For the second year in a row, DHS has proposed eliminating grant programs in favor of creating a $600 million Targeted Infrastructure Protection program, under which state and local governments would compete for funds to pay for security in many areas, including ports, transit systems and chemical plants. Congress rejected that plan last year.

The Collins-Murray bill sets aside $400 million for port security grants. It was unclear Tuesday how much money would be set aside in the House bill. The House bill would offer grants based on the level of risk, while the Senate bill would not.

Both the House and Senate bills would, for the first time, authorize the Homeland Security Department's Container Security Initiative and Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism programs. This would include allowing DHS to loan inspection technology and equipment to overseas ports.

The Senate bill requires that the Container Security Initiative be considered in trade negotiations, while the House bill does not.

The two bills would call for DHS to release container security standards that departmental officials have been working on within 180 days, create a new director of cargo security policy, and take steps to coordinate port security operations among federal, state and local officials.

The House bill stipulates that port workers be checked for terrorist ties under the National Terrorist Watch List, while the Senate bill does not.

Both bills require DHS to come up with a plan to ensure that economic trade would continue if there were an attack on a port and the deployment of radiation detection equipment to all seaports.

"I'm hoping the silver lining of the Dubai controversy will be comprehensive security legislation," Collins said.