Wicker Challenges Administration’s Claimed Supply Chain Wins

Number of vessels waiting for a berth at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach remain at record levels, yet Biden claims numbers are decreasing

December 7, 2021

Click here to watch Wicker’s remarks. 

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today expressed concerns over the Biden Administration’s efforts to address the ongoing supply chain challenges during the subcommittee hearing on the ocean shipping supply chain disruptions. 

“The Administration has claimed that the number of vessels waiting off of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is decreasing,” said Wicker. “The only way they can make that claim is because they are using a new counting method, requiring ships to queue up over 150 miles off the California coast. As of December 4, over 96 ships were waiting for berths.”

On October 13, the Administration announced that the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would move to 24/7 operations. No terminal is truly open 24/7, according to the Washington Post. Only one of the terminals at Long Beach is open for longer hours on a trial basis. On November 16, Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka said that a shortage of truckers and warehouse workers hinders 24/7 operations and that there have been very few takers to date.

In July, President Biden signed an executive order (EO) on competition. As part of the EO, the President encouraged the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) to “vigorously enforce” against unreasonable detention and demurrage practices. Congress and the FMC had already been working on this issue, including the FMC issuing a final interpretive rule on detention and demurrage in May 2020. Contrary to the President’s encouragement to address unreasonable detention and demurrage charges, the Administration coordinated with the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on the new container dwell fees. These new fees, which will be passed on to American businesses by ocean carriers, start at $100 per container and increase in $100 increments each day. After 30 days, this would reach the exorbitant sum of $46,500 for a single container. 

Additionally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s temporary emergency standard mandating employee vaccination for private businesses with at least 100 employees threatens to exacerbate existing workforce shortages and contribute to further congestion. Labor representatives for West Coast ports, among others, have indicated that the mandate may hamper port operations. The American Trucking Association raised concerns that the vaccine mandate could result in a loss of 37 percent of drivers to retirements, and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association criticized the cross-border vaccine requirement as an unnecessary government mandate. Despite these clear risks, the Administration continues to fight the stays entered by various courts while litigation is ongoing.

Republican members on the Commerce Committee have been actively working to address the current challenges facing the supply chain. Last week, Wicker sent a letter to President Biden requesting officials from the Administration, including members of the Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force, come before the Commerce Committee for a closed briefing to discuss the challenges and opportunities currently facing our transportation supply chain. 

In November, Wicker and Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Todd Young, R-Ind., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., introduced the Facilitating Relief for Efficient Intermodal Gateways to Handle Transportation (FREIGHT) Act. The bill would take important steps to address the ongoing freight challenges while also putting in place policies to support the transportation network in the long term. Wicker also joined Blackburn in introducing the Improving Memphis’ Supply Chain Act, which builds on the work of the Memphis Supply Chain Innovation team led by the FMC. The Improving Memphis’ Supply Chain Act would incentivize private implementation of a self-sustaining interoperable chassis pool that could provide operational benefits even after the heightened freight congestion subsides. Wicker, Moran, and 14 additional Senators recently wrote a letter encouraging the FMC to engage with the ports and swiftly address any unjust or unreasonable aspects of the new dwell fees.

Remarks as delivered: 

U.S. manufacturers, retailers, consumers, and workers face enormous challenges stemming from freight and supply chain congestion. The effect will become even more pronounced as Christmas is upon us and families are trying to purchase gifts for their loved ones amid soaring prices. These transportation bottlenecks show no signs of letting up. High levels of freight congestion are expected well into next year. 

I have heard from many supply chain stakeholders about the complexity of moving such a vast amount of goods, and, indeed, the situation is complex. We have all seen the images of ships waiting for miles off shore to unload their cargo. The lack of port terminal and warehouse space continues, as well as limitations on intermodal equipment, and workforce disruptions. All of this makes it harder for truckers and railroads as they work to move containers. On top of all this, vaccine mandates could have a major impact on the transportation sector. The trucking industry estimates that the employer-based vaccination mandate could result in the loss of up to 37 percent of drivers for covered companies. Mr. Chairman, we simply connate absorb that level of disruption.

It would be impossible to cover every aspect of the supply chain challenges in one sitting. But I appreciate Senator Peters and Senator Fischer for holding today’s hearing. I also want to join Senator Fischer in urging the committee to hold additional hearings on the supply chain with witnesses from the Administration and from land-based transportation operators. 

Recently, I led a letter with several of my colleagues requesting a briefing from the Administration on how they plan to address these supply chain issues. I would like at this point, Mr. Chairman, to ask unanimous consent to insert that letter into the record at this point. The Administration has made a few attempts at solving the problems, such as announcing back in early October that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would be open 24/7 – but, as the Washington Post reported just a week ago, that has yet to happen. At this point, I ask unanimous consent to enter into the record that Washington Post story confirming that this is yet to happen. 

Supply chains are still jammed up. In fact, just one Port of Los Angeles terminal has experimented – just one – with 24/7 operations. But according to the Port Director, “we’ve had very few takers” for this one experiment in one terminal in Los Angeles. Very few takers for those extended hours because of a shortage of truckers and warehouse workers – they seem reluctant to show up at 3:00 in the morning to load goods onto their trucks. 

The Administration – and this does really concern me – has claimed that the number of vessels waiting off of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is decreasing. The only way they can make that claim is because they are using a new counting method, requiring ships to queue up over 150 miles off the California coast. As of December 4, over 96 ships were waiting for berths. At this point, Mr. Chair, I ask unanimous consent to insert into the record a Bloomberg article in this regard.

In other words, there are just as many ships still out there. Cooking the numbers is not a solution, and I am disappointed at the Administration for attempting to suggest that that has been a solution. 

I have been disappointed by the resistance to modernizing port and freight operations. For example, automated terminals and trucks or new technologies that could improve efficiency and transparency within the supply chain. There are steps that should be taken to support the movement of goods. 

I welcomed the President’s signature of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes much-needed investments in traditional infrastructure that will result in long-term benefits to the supply chain to help minimize future bottlenecks.

Furthermore, Senators are working on legislative solutions. I recently introduced the FREIGHT Act with Senators Capito, Moran, Young, Blackburn, Thune, and Sullivan. This legislation would spur improvements to our freight transportation system, streamline the certification process for truck drivers, address unlawful shipping conduct, and provide oversight of transportation operations.  

Senator Blackburn has legislation to incentivize a private sector-led chassis pool in Memphis. As a major inland port, Memphis needs to increase its ability to operate more efficiently in our interconnected freight system that stretches from coast to coast. 

I also want to applaud Senator Moran for leading a letter to the Federal Maritime Commission, which I joined. That letter encouraged the Commission to engage with the ports and swiftly address any unjust or unreasonable aspects of the new dwell fees. 

There are limits to what government can do. The challenges facing our supply chain are enormous, complex, and involve numerous stakeholders around the globe. If we are not careful, a heavy government hand could result in additional congestion rather than improvements. 

Thank you to the witnesses, and thank you Mr. Chairman for your indulgence.