House panel pressured to defeat cargo inspection amendment

By Chris Strohm

April 25, 2006

A coalition of industry groups is mounting an aggressive lobbying campaign to persuade House Homeland Security Committee Republicans to oppose an amendment that would require all cargo to be scanned at foreign ports before being shipped to the United States.

The amendment will be introduced by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass, when the committee meets Wednesday to mark up a major bipartisan port security bill.

The coalition includes several of the nation's largest business groups, retailers and importers, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents outlets like Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot and Best Buy.

Representatives from the coalition are calling and visiting lawmakers' offices and plan to send every member of the committee a letter Tuesday stating that Markey's amendment is too vague, not feasible and would cripple U.S. commerce.

The coalition fears that committee Republicans will cave to political pressure from Democrats and organizations that say the GOP is becoming weak on security. "I think there is more political attention on [this issue] now than there was a few weeks ago. Our hope is that Republicans hold the line," said Jonathan Gold, the Retail Industry Leaders Association's vice president for global supply chain policy.

Other members of the industry coalition include: the American Association of Port Authorities, the American Apparel and Footwear Association, the Coalition of New England Companies for Trade, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the National Industrial Transportation League and the Pacific Coast Council of Customs Brokers & Freight Forwarders.

They are mindful that earlier this year, Democrats were quick to oppose the takeover of terminal operations at several major U.S. ports by a Dubai-owned company, a move that put immense election-year pressure on Republican lawmakers to come out against it as well, despite President Bush's endorsement of the deal. The Dubai controversy propelled cargo and port security measures high on this year's legislative agenda.

When the leading port security bill, sponsored by Homeland Security Economic Security Subcommittee Chairman Dan Lungren, R-Calif., and Intelligence ranking member Jane Harman, D-Calif., was marked up by Lungren's panel at the end of March, Markey introduced a similar amendment, but it died on a 8-6 party-line vote.

Markey described the full committee's markup of the Lungren-Harman measure Wednesday as a "showdown."

"This is an historically important vote, especially in the wake of the Dubai debacle," he said during a teleconference Monday.

Markey said his amendment will require the Homeland Security Department to ensure within three years that all containers being shipped to the United States have been inspected by radiation detectors and X-ray machines. The department could issue one-year extensions for foreign ports that have difficulty complying. The amendment would also require containers to be secured with tamper-resistant seals.

Markey's teleconference with reporters was held with a nonprofit group called Americans United, which is running television ads in the districts of nine committee Republicans that could either be swing votes on the amendment or are locked in tight re-election races.

The ads do not specifically endorse Markey's amendment, but call for the inspection of all cargo coming into U.S. ports. The ads also charge that President Bush and "his backers in Congress" are not serious about cargo and port security.

"It's our intent to create some Republican votes for this," said Brad Woodhouse, Americans United communications director. "It is time for the majority in Congress to put its votes and its money where its mouth is." The group says it helped defeat Bush's plan to overhaul Social Security last year.

The World Shipping Council is also opposed to Markey's amendment, but is technically not part of the industry coalition. The council sent a letter to every committee member April 14, calling the idea of inspecting every container at foreign ports "attractive," but saying the Markey amendment does not explain how the scanning would be done, who would pay for the necessary equipment, what kind of data would be collected and where that data would be kept and reviewed.

Christopher Koch, the council president, noted that, if the amendment passed, Congress would either have to depend on private companies at foreign ports to scan all cargo, or require foreign governments to do the scanning.

Markey did not answer a reporter's question about who specifically would do the scanning, saying only that it would be done under supervision of the U.S. government.

Koch said he was particularly concerned because the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a bill earlier this month that would also require all containers to be scanned before being shipped to the United States. That bill was introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

Koch noted that four Transportation committee Republicans, including Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, also sit on the Homeland Security committee. A telephone call to Young's office for comment was not returned Monday.

By Chris Strohm

April 25, 2006