House of Representatives Passes New Boating Laws

As the 116th Congress came to an end, maritime and boating laws were one of many topics discussed at this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. This legislation is passed to specify the annual budget and expenditures for the U.S. Department of Defense while creating policies for how the money will be spent.

With two yearly bills, the NDAA sets policies and appropriations for the U.S. Department of Defense, or DOD, within the 2020 fiscal year. The bill passed in July 2020 addressed military construction, National Guard and Reserve Force facilities, and policies relating to North Korean nuclear sanctions among other areas.

Additional legislation was passed in a specific act within the broader bill that looked at the maritime industry. The Elijah E. Cummings Coast Guard Authorization Act, also abbreviated as CGAA, had been in progress for more than a year within Congress and attached to the NDAA in full in July. Not only containing information about the Coast Guard and other maritime regulatory departments’ budgets but the act also detailed information related to merchant mariner documents that could influence workers on sea vessels.

What is the Elijah E. Cummings Coast Guard Authorization Act?

The Elijah E. Cummings Coast Guard Authorization Act was passed with a bipartisan effort in July, honoring the late Rep. Elijah Eugene Cummings who was a civil rights activist that served in Congress from 1996 until his death in 2019. He was heavily involved with matters surrounding the Coast Guard and maritime transportation during his career.

For Coast Guard regulations, this act authorized an increase to funding for demonstration programs, requirements for new reports, and clarifications on who has what regulatory authority for the Coast Guard to better address maritime transportation needs. The bill included provisions to enhance navigation and maritime safety while setting aside more funding for shore infrastructure and other deferred maintenance.

It reauthorizes the Coast Guard and Federal Maritime Commission to disperse funding of $1.8 billion to various departments, infrastructures, and maintenance programs as well as human resource elements like gender, racial diversity, and family and childcare policies.

What Did the Act Include?

A strong portion of this act emphasizes Congress’ view that the Arctic region is important to the strategic national security interests of the U.S., such as authorizing new cutters and icebreakers for maritime vessels. There is also a section detailing the construction of a new Polar Security Cutter to replace aging ice breakers on existing ships.

Potentially one of the most interesting parts of the CGAA is the mention of financial assistance to stabilize the U.S. maritime transportation industry in the event of a national disaster or emergency.

Many have stated that the coronavirus pandemic made it clear that the maritime industry required additional resources and support from the government to respond to future catastrophes in and around the U.S. maritime territories. Examples like multiple cruise ships acting as coronavirus hubs and other examples were utilized to show the critical role the Coast Guard and other departments play in handling emergency situations.

Similar to the current crisis funding of the COVID-19 pandemic, the aid allotted in the CGAA would be available for state and private entities in the maritime transportation industry to continue their business in the event of a large disruption. Whether a drastic increase in demand, like with the pandemic, or the significant issues flooding can have on marine businesses, this funding would go into an investment for emergency protections like elevating buildings, construction of flood barriers, and other preventative tactics on top of more aggressive economic policies.

How Will This Act Influence Boating?

While the act appeared to dictate Coast Guard protocols, there was information within the CGAA to address commercial maritime activities as well.

One provision within the bill detailed how vessels are to deal with documentation of employees not directly working for the operation of the vessel, but rather other tasks onboard. Members onboard a vessel who directly work for the function of that vessel require a merchant mariner document, a type of documentation offered by the Coast Guard to show mariner verified qualifications. The CGAA would require all crew who do not perform tasks related to the function of the vessel to have a two-year waiver and undergo a background check and appropriate training for their safety onboard before they are permitted onto the ship.

Another stipulation under the CGAA is that merchant mariner documents and transportation work identification credentials can be filed jointly, simplifying the existing process for merchant mariners who require this documentation for sailing jobs.

Similarly relating to recreational boating, a $650 million budget was set aside for conservation and fishery restoration efforts. Methods such as fish stocking programs, infrastructure improvements, requiring studies on the impacts of non-motorized vessels on recreational lands, and other tactics will be implemented under the CGAA to improve the recreational boating and angling community in addition to stimulating and protecting the industry.

A final element to note from the CGAA is its mandate that boats under 26 feet would need engine cut-off devices to improve the safety of recreational boats. This piece is building upon previous Congressional work that required manufacturers to install such devices on vessels under 26 feet. This bill further designated the Coast Guard the authority to approve recreational boating construction standards, something that was previously left to other entities.

Moving Forward with Updated Legislation

As this year’s National Defense Authorization Act and it’s legislation rolled out, including the Elijah E. Cummings Coast Guard Authorization Act, the maritime industry may see shifts. While similar legislation has passed in years prior, this is the first year that has dictated documentation and construction policies like those for commercial boats.

Boating enthusiasts as well as Coast Guard officials anticipate beneficial changes from the NDAA, but much of the changes will take time to fully implement. Many maritime industry stakeholders have reached out to their Representatives with support for these pieces of legislation, but only time will tell the true impact these bills will have in such a volatile year.

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