Five takeaways from an eye-opening trip to the Ports of LA and Long Beach
By Sarah Chamberlain and Rep. David Valadao
It’s one thing to walk into a grocery store and see empty shelves or wait weeks into the new year for a holiday gift ordered last November.
It is entirely different to spend a few days at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and see firsthand how utterly absurd it is that we still have these supply-chain issues.
Republican Representatives Lisa McClain (MI-10) and Larry Bucshon (IN-08) recently traveled with us to Los Angeles and Long Beach to assess how Congress might address these problems. We chose the California ports – some of the busiest in the world -- because we were skeptical of claims from the Biden administration that port congestion is improving.
The United States relies on other nations to transport our goods across the globe on carriers. Unfortunately, we have fallen victim to bad actors capitalizing on this disaster.
As foreign-owned shipping carriers sit off the coast of California, waiting to come into port, they profit from the exploitation of our agriculture producers. The carrier companies rake in money as they wait for the terminals to become available. After unloading their ships, they often take back empty containers instead of honoring existing agreements with agriculture producers, resulting in our exports being delayed even further at our own ports. We must investigate how to get vessel-operating common carriers to take American agricultural exports – many of them perishables – after dropping off shipments from overseas.
There is no quick fix, but we need to restock grocery store shelves and help food banks and other nonprofits that feed low-income Americans. Shipping delays continue to impact U.S-produced foods. Farmers who could replace a tractor tire within a day must now wait much longer.
Our farms are producing enough food. But during pre-Omicron House Agriculture Committee hearings last November, we heard that the labor shortage is the most immediate issue facing national supply chains.
The supply chain crisis resulted from multiple failures across the system that came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic. Factories overseas were temporarily shuttered by coronavirus cases. In response, U.S. shipping companies cut their schedules in anticipation of lower demand. That was a mistake. Demand spiked as Main Street Americans outfitted home offices and classrooms, started home-improvement projects, and bought new kitchen products, TVs, and other consumer items. Companies that subsequently ramped up production quickly ran into problems getting the components they needed from other countries.
The ongoing crisis highlights our overreliance on foreign goods and the importance of increasing manufacturing capabilities in America. One missing component (e.g., an automotive computer chip) can stop a production process dead in its tracks.
Here are five takeaways from our visit:
We need more infrastructure (including containers) and workers. Very few port facilities operate 24/7. We have a shortage of warehouse space and chassis used to transport containers by truck, posing a challenge for agriculture exporters as shipment delays threaten produce freshness. The cost of products spoiling while awaiting export endangers the livelihood of our farmers and raises the price for Americans to feed their families.
We need more drivers. We need to improve the commercial license certification process for those leaving the military. There may also be opportunities to certify younger drivers (18 and older) to cross state lines. California must also adjust standards to align with neighboring states on restrictions like weight limits.
We need to focus on automation and workforce retraining. Increased automation does not mean people have to lose their jobs. One terminal at the Port of Long Beach is entirely automated, which has allowed the terminal to move 250% more containers while expanding its payroll by 30%. Adopting automation enables our ports to remain competitive globally and will help workers broaden their skillsets.
We need local and state governments to step up to the plate. States could apply excess pandemic-related funds to ports and highways. Government entities can reduce burdensome regulatory requirements, and encourage private investment into supply-chain technology. Resolving this crisis is urgent, and temporary relief from transportation restrictions would surely speed up this resolution.
We need a better way to communicate the scope of the ongoing problem. Consistent and transparent reporting will tell us how many ships are anchored near the ports, even if they have been stopped outside the traditional zone to avoid being counted. We need a better way to assess transpacific shipping times, which have hit record highs in recent months and make it more difficult for businesses to plan. We also need to get carriers, terminals, and shippers to share access to commercial data for planning purposes.
The supply chain relies on optimal productivity at ports, warehouses, distribution centers, and more to prevent delays and congestion, and nationwide labor shortages have been incredibly disruptive.
We must fix this broken system and push for greater collaboration among all players.
Port Photo Credit: Bloomberg/Apu Gomes/AFP