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Complete with the statement “It is the sense of Congress that the United States Merchant Marine is a critical part of the national infrastructure of the United States, and the men and women of the United States Merchant Marine are essential workers,” the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has cleared the House and Senate, awaiting only President Biden’s signature.

The annual measure outlines defense priorities and funds the nation’s military activities for the fiscal year. Within the spending package are several items of interest to the U.S.-flag merchant fleet.

The legislation gives the Maritime Administration (MarAd) the sole authority to make U.S.-flag vessel non-availability determinations in order to waive the Jones Act. Such a waiver must wait at least 48 hours after a request is published before one can be issued. It would prohibit waivers for vessels already at sea with a cargo that could have been moved by a Jones Act-compliant ship coming into a U.S. port.

The NDAA fully funds the Maritime Security Program (MSP), which must be done annually. The MSP provides a stipend to U.S.-flag shipping companies for the availability of 60 U.S.-flag vessels by the military in times of national defense or emergencies. In addition, the bill authorized funding for the similar Tanker Security Program and expanding this program from 10 to 20 vessels by 2024.

It calls for MarAd to conduct national maritime study within the next year. The study must include input from the maritime unions. It also states MarAd to issue a final rule implementing and enforcing U.S.-flag cargo preference shipping requirements.

The bill introduces a series of measures aimed at eliminating sexual assault and harassment in the industry.

Of interest on the Great Lakes, the NDAA increases the amount of money funding the new larger lock for the Soo Locks and includes dollars for icebreakers.