Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Some of the Best Constituent Advocacy You'll See This Year

This story may well have slipped under your radar, but if you plan to vote in the U.S.Senate race in Massachusetts later this year and you care about Massachusetts' history and the unique attributes of its economy, you should take heed: Senator Scott Brown is currently engaged in the most effective direct constituent advocacy we are likely to see this year, on behalf of a struggling Massachusetts industry that desperately needs an effective champion in Washington.

The top-line story is pretty straightforward. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is responsible for (among many other things) regulating the fishing industry. One of the myriad ways in which NOAA discharges that duty is by levying fines on fishermen who violate regulations. And employees of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of NOAA, were just caught rigging the federal procurement process to use some of the proceeds of those fines to purchase a pleasure yacht, which was then used to host booze cruises. Here's the Seattle Times:
Federal fish cops in Seattle bought a $300,000 luxury boat to spy on whale-watching tours — but didn't go through an appropriate bidding process, held barbecues onboard, ferried friends and family across Puget Sound to restaurants and resorts, and used the boat for what one visitor called "a pleasure cruise."
When confronted, one federal employee in Seattle misled inspectors about how the vessel was used, and one interfered with federal investigators, according to an internal investigation by the Commerce Department. Those documents were released Friday by U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.
At issue is a 35-foot, 14-passenger boat purchased by federal agents with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) using money seized from fishermen who violated the law.
Leave aside the ludicrous intended use of the vessel (spying on whale-watching tours??). In fact, the boat was used primarily to ferry NMFS officials and their spouses to seaside dinner locations along the coast of Washington.

So why is this getting any attention? Because Scott Brown is making a pretty loud fuss about it.

As you might guess, there is a back-story here. Some time ago (back during the Bush Administration), NOAA decided that the storied Massachusetts fishing industry (which dates back pretty much to the nation's founding) is an anachronism whose time has passed. the Commonwealth's fisherfolk still ply their trade primarily using small, owner-operated fishing vessels - the model made famous in The Perfect Storm a few years back. Elsewhere around the world commercial fishing is now mostly done on what might be called the Wal-Mart model: using comparatively massive vessels owned by a few easily-identified and regulated corporations per region. Compare these to this for a sense of the differences.

Now at first blush one might think the bureaucrats and the environmentalists who motivate them would prefer the Massachusetts model, with its small craft and correspondingly small nets, to the warehouse-sized fish vacuums in use elsewhere. In fact, although on an individual basis the mega-boats net orders of magnitude more fish than, say, a single owner-operated boat operating out of Gloucester, collectively the mega-ships are much easier for the feds to track, inspect and regulate.

And so for a decade-plus now NOAA has been slowly and inexorably squeezing the Massachusetts fishing industry to death, imposing catch limits and other regulations deliberately calculated to make it impossible for our fishermen - many of whom represent generations of experience in the industry - to continue to make a living. Oh, the regulations are justified by seemingly-legitimate concerns about over-fishing and perpetuation of vital fish stocks, no doubt. But the unsustainable burdens concentrated on small-scale fishermen (the Massachusetts model) are imposed with one over-riding goal in mind: NOAA clearly intends to regulate our fishing industry out of existence. The fact that the bureaucrats in charge of implementing this slow-strangulation policy do it with all of the cold-blooded emotional detachment of an actual boa constrictor just adds insult to compounding injury.

In that context, traditional political advocacy only goes so far. State elected officials like Massachusetts Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (who hails from Gloucester) have been fighting NOAA tooth-and-nail for years. Governor Patrick even gave the issue a bit of election year attention in 2010, after Charlie Baker raised a ruckus. But straight up appeals for relief from the crushing effects of NOAA's regulations have been largely ineffective, for an obvious reason: when elimination of the industry is the unspoken objective, cries of "you're killing us!" are not exactly a deterrent.

Enter Senator Brown, with a different approach. In addition to filing legislation to bring NOAA to heel (dubbed the FISH Act), Brown is taking the fishing fight to the bureaucrats' home waters. 'Okay NOAA,' says the Senator. 'You want to sit up there on high, far removed from the every day concerns of the hard-working men and women who you are forcing into the bread lines, looking down  your noses at their plight and shrugging your shoulders at their pleas? Fine. Why don't we lift the hood on your operation and take a good, close look at what might be called the fishing-regulation industry?'

The preliminary results of that inspection aren't pretty. Here's Brown on the Senate floor last week (watch the clip above):
Here is a list of all the problems I have encountered with NOAA since coming to the Senate: abusive treatment of fishermen, resulting in decimation of the [fishing] fleet; investigations motivated by money; improper fines, leading to foreclosure and bankruptcy [of commercial fisherman]; "shredding parties" destroying 75%-80% of NOAA Office of Law Enforcement documents; lying to Inspector General investigators; discouraging cooperation with the Inspector General; misleading Members of Congress; a $300,000 party boat purchased with fishermen's fines; $12,000 in party boat expenses paid with fishermen's fines; $30,000 engine destroyed by a NOAA employee on weekend vacation while using "undercover" NOAA pleasure craft.
In lay terms this kind of maneuver is known as turning the tables, and it is about time. What Senator Brown has seen and is now revealing is a typical insulated bureaucracy run amok, rife the kind of ideological perversion of its mission and abuse of its broad regulatory powers that nearly always appears when unaccountable appointed officials are vested with unchecked authority and allowed to operate largely free of scrutiny.

Senator Brown's political opponents will doubtless characterize his recent actions as election year posturing. The Commonwealth's fishing communities on whose behalf the Senator is fighting know better. He has been with them, fighting, since the beginning of his term.

This is the kind of advocate Massachusetts needs in Washington, DC.

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