A congressional hearing on foreign ships in the Gulf of Mexico turned into a full-scale attack on the Obama administration’s response to the crisis — led by the committee’s Democrats.
Thursday’s hearing came as a growing chorus of critics has accused the Obama administration of unwisely turning away international help for the oil spill cleanup and failing to issue a temporary waiver of the protectionist Jones Act. The hearing came as Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) criticized the administration for bureaucratic hurdles.
Witnesses from the Coast Guard and Maritime Administration attempted to rebut the claims, but their assurances fell on deaf ears. (Video of the hearing.)
At one point, Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) (D-Md.) became visibly upset and scolded Rear Adm. Kevin Cook. Moments earlier, the Coast Guard official came under fire from another committee Democrat for not having enough skimming vessels off the coast of Florida.
“I want to make sure we sense the urgency of this moment,” Cummings said. “We have a window of opportunity to save our beaches, save some of our birds, fish and wildlife. And I’m just wondering whether there is that sense of urgency. … When you say something like ‘We’re trying to make arrangements,’ I hate to say it, but that’s not good enough.”
Other Democrats were equally as harsh.
Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) stopped just shy of accusing the Coast Guard of incompetence. When Cook was unable to answer her questions about the number of skimming vessels available in the United States, she demanded he find out and report back to her.
“How many skimmers do we have? How many are assigned? How many have been offered? When and where? How many have been received and accepted? And how many are available and where? That includes the Coast Guard, private, National Guard and foreign. I mean, you’ve got to know what you have to do something,” Richardson said. “I don’t understand why you don’t have a database to know where your resources are that you can utilize.”
Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL) (D-Fla.) said it was unacceptable that her state couldn’t utilize foreign vessels for skimming. She held up pictures of skimmers available in Mexico and Norway that could help.
“We are in emergency mode and we need skimmers,” Brown said. “We need the big ones. I understand they’re available in other countries, including Mexico and Norway. What is the process for the state to utilize these vessels from other countries? … We’re talking about protecting Florida’s coast.”
When Brown asserted there were only 30 skimmers working off the coast of Florida, Cook countered there actually 110. “We don’t have enough,” Brown responded. “What is the process for the state to take advantage of skimmers from other countries?”
At one point during the hearing, Democrats were making a more appealing case for waiving the Jones Act than their Republican counterparts. The 1920 law regulates movement on U.S. waters and between ports, restricting where foreign ships are able to dock. With the State Department acknowledging it has received more than 20 aid offers, critics have questioned why the administration simply won’t suspend the law in a time of crisis.
Deputy Maritime Administrator David Matsuda confirmed there has been one Jones Act waiver request for a foreign deck barge to operate within three miles of the U.S. coast. That request was denied because American vessels could perform the same functions. Matsuda defended the administrative waiver process, noting that case-by-case requests are handled within 48 hours.
Of course, the Obama administration could eliminate the bureaucratic delay entirely by simply following the precedent set by the Bush administration, which waived the Jones Act in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 to transport oil and gasoline throughout the Gulf region. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has the legal authority to suspend the law with Matsuda’s approval.
Matsuda and Cook’s reassurances about the situation in the Gulf left most members unconvinced. Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) pressed the witnesses repeatedly on the Jones Act’s restrictions. Rep. John Mica (R-FL) (R-Fla.) read an e-mail he received from a U.S. vessel operator whose help was turned down. And Rep. Frank LoBodino (R-N.J.) said it was shameful the Customs and Border Patrol failed to show for the hearing.
The underlying message from members of Congress: The administration has failed to utilize all the resources — foreign and domestic — at its disposal. Unfortunately for Obama, the witnesses did little to dissuade them of that opinion.