Senate panel approves bill to monitor port performance

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A divided Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday approved legislation requiring the government to report on the performance of major U.S. port operations, including during labor contract talks.

The voice vote, which follows a nine-month slowdown at 29 West Coast ports, sent the measure on to possible floor action, over the objections of Democrats and unions who warned that it could lead to improper federal intervention in contract talks.

Titled the Port Performance Act, the bill is intended to help Congress analyze supply trends and identify freight bottlenecks by requiring U.S. Department of Transportation data on capacity levels and cargo volumes at major U.S. ports.

In addition to annual port statistics, the bill would require performance reports before the expiration of a labor agreement and each month thereafter until a new contract is reached.

Republicans turned back an amendment by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin that would have struck out the labor language.

Supporters including shippers, manufacturers, agriculture interests and retailers say greater visibility into port operations is necessary after West Coast ports partially shut down during protracted labor negotiations between last July and February.

The bill’s Republican sponsors say the dispute cost the economy $2.5 billion a day until President Barack Obama decided to mediate in the talks. Union dockworkers ratified a new contract last month.

The committee’s Republican chairman, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, denied on Thursday that the bill would affect collective bargaining and said it would measure the effects of labor talks along with other factors including weather, equipment failures and infrastructure investments.

Democrats led by Senator Bill Nelson of Florida warned that the reporting requirement could put U.S. ports at a competitive disadvantage by divulging proprietary information and distract operators from priorities including modernization.

In a letter to the committee this week, the AFL-CIO labor coalition warned lawmakers that the requirement could politicize data collection by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which would produce the reports.

Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Phil Berlowitz