The House of Representatives voted 369-42 Monday to approve the Senate’s version of the Ocean Shipping Reform Act in an effort to reduce bottlenecks at U.S. ports and improve conditions for agricultural exports. The overwhelming vote sends the legislation to the White House, where President Joe Biden says he will sign it.

"Lowering prices for Americans is my top priority, and I applaud the Congress for passing the Ocean Shipping Reform Act on a bipartisan basis, which will help lower costs for American retailers, farmers and consumers," Biden said in a statement following House passage of the bill.

While the Senate version of OSRA isn’t considered as tough on ocean carriers that are refusing to transport U.S. ag commodities to Asia, the legislation still addresses the issue and is widely supported by farm groups whose members are being hit hard by rising port and freight costs.

“Foreign flagged ocean carriers are playing games with American agriculture exports and our bill puts an end to it,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D. “The Ocean Shipping Reform Act is the strongest fix to our maritime laws in a generation. Americans are facing record inflation, our bill isn’t a silver bullet, but help is on the way.”

Ag groups welcomed the bill after months of watching ships filled with empty shipping containers leave U.S. ports. 

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“The bill places disciplines on ocean carriers’ ability to decline export cargo, meaning more of those empty containers will soon be filled with high-quality, sustainable U.S. dairy foods for consumers around the world,” said Michael Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association. “The Act also puts guardrails around when demurrage can be charged, helping to get U.S. dairy exports on the water in a timelier manner.”

The bill also sets minimum standards for ocean shipping service contracts and prohibits ocean carriers from retaliating against shippers that lodge complaints.

“This legislation empowers the Federal Maritime Commission to broadly regulate ocean shipping and ensure the timely delivery of perishable goods at all levels of the fresh produce supply chain,” said Robert Guenther, chief public policy officer for the International Fresh Produce Association. “At a time of rising costs and high inflation, we applaud the passage of the Ocean Shipping Reform Act and relief it will ultimately bring to fresh produce consumers and businesses.”

Reps. Johnson and John Garamendi, D-Calif., authored the original House version of OSRA. The Senate version is authored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Thune, R-S.D. and requires the Federal Maritime Commission to address the empty container problem in rule-making no later than 6 months after the legislation is enacted.

“Although not the ideal bill, we can’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” said Jaime Castaneda, executive vice president of the National Milk Producers Federation and the U.S. Dairy Export Council. “We are looking forward to working with the Federal Maritime Commission and the Administration to implement this legislation in the fastest and most efficient manner.”

Still, farm leaders like USA Rice President and CEO Betsy Ward said the OSRA passed Monday “is a major step by Congress towards holding ocean carriers accountable and hopefully easing the burden on U.S. rice exporters that have been operating at a competitive disadvantage over the past few years.”

Rice farmers continue to be hit hard by vessel-operating common carriers that refuse to load up containers full of ag commodities when they deliver Chinese goods to U.S. ports. Ag shippers are often unable to get their rice, oranges, hay, wine, almonds, cheese, pork, beef, chicken and apples onto Asia-bound ships when Chinese exporters are paying VOCCs extra to get containers back to China as quickly as possible, which means bringing them back empty.

"During the pandemic, ocean carriers increased their prices by as much as 1,000%. And, too often, these ocean carriers are refusing to take American exports back to Asia, leaving with empty containers instead. That’s costing farmers and ranchers — and our economy — a lot of money," Biden said. "This bill will make progress reducing costs for families and ensuring fair treatment for American businesses — including farmers and ranchers. I look forward to signing it into law."

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