The SAFE Ports Act (H.R. 4954) moved out of committee yesterday at a markup held by the full House Homeland Security Committee. The most contentious issue at the hearing was an amendment proposed by Rep. Edward Markey that instructed DHS to develop a detailed plan with firm deadlines for overseas container screening, which failed by an 18-16 vote following extensive pressure from industry, as noted by Kevin Drum today. A substitute amendment by Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, which was directionally consistent with Markey’s amendment but removed firm deadlines, passed unanimously.
I’m glad that the bill has passed and is headed for a vote on the floor of the House (perhaps as soon as next week). If the Markey amendment had passed, that could have hurt the bill’s chances of moving to a floor vote, and perhaps scuppered the prospect of passing meaningful port and cargo security legislation this year.
Industry groups had some legitimate reasons to oppose this amendment; for example, there are some foreign ports (e.g. small ports in the Caribbean) where it probably is a bad security investment to for the United States to mandate and/or fund purchases of expensive screening equipment. There are still technology gaps that need to be filled, in order to improve detection capabilities and facilitate its use in a way that keeps the supply chain moving. And there are real governance challenges associated with enforcing the foreign use of screening technology, given the relevant issues of sovereignty and international cooperation.
But it is incumbent on industry to now be proactive rather than reactive in response to proposals such as this one, and step up voluntary and industry-led efforts to strengthen supply chain security. After all, this is not the final word for this proposal. The Senate plans to take it up when the companion bill to the SAFE Ports Act, the GreenLane Maritime Cargo Security Act (S. 2459), moves forward soon. And if, God forbid, there is a terrorist attack involving the port and cargo system that can somehow be linked with industry inaction, then Congress and/or the Adminstration are likely to impose requirements that will be much, much more stringent than anything envisioned in this amendment.