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Business experts split on criticism of Buttigieg on supply chain issues

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Experts say Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg should work with truck industry to address supply chain issues.

Amid images of goods stranded on ships near America’s ports and notable price increases in basic commodities, including food and gasoline, right-wing critics are lambasting Pete Buttigieg in his role overseeing the supply chain as transportation secretary, although business experts in the field are split over whether that criticism is valid.

Business experts who spoke to the Blade — and whose own views may be colored by their political affiliations — offered a range of explanations for the break down in the supply chain, such as a sharp increase in demand among American consumers, the coronavirus pandemic, and a shortage of truck drivers responsible for transporting goods, which led to different conclusions as to whether Buttigieg, the first openly gay person confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a Cabinet position, was responsible.

Daniel Innis, a professor at the University of New Hampshire Peter T. College College of Business and Economics and who specializes in marketing and logistics and is a board member of Log Cabin Republicans, said criticism of Buttigieg is “certainly warranted” because he isn’t showing leadership in bringing stakeholders to the table.

“Pete can help by sitting down with the trucking industry, the railroads and so on and saying, ‘Look, this is a crisis that we have to solve,'” Innis said. “Eventually, you know, we’re going to get to a place where things that are really important aren’t available to us, and this has to be fixed. So you know, we need some leadership coming from Mayor Pete.”

As a result of supply chain issues, consumers are seeing increased prices for goods, including basic necessities like food and gasoline. With the Thanksgiving holiday fast approaching, experts say prices for turkey could be the most expensive in history for American consumers.

Innis, who said the supply chain depends on flow and “if any part of the chain breaks down, the whole thing collapses,” said the problem he’s hearing is on the receiving end at terminal hubs where truck drivers are supposed to pick up goods.

As an example, Innis offered a personal anecdote about being in Savannah, Ga, and seeing about 20 ships on the coastline waiting to come into the port. Such a port, Innis said, would be a first stop for goods before they’re loaded on trains and headed to terminal hubs, where truck drivers then pick it up.

“That’s where it’s breaking down,” Innis said. “Things are not getting picked up. And maybe a month or so ago, the Union Pacific Railroad basically barred anything coming out of LA for a week, so they could clear out the stuff from the Chicago terminal that wasn’t being picked up. So it seems to me based on my observation that we’ve got a real problem with truck drivers at the final destinations, and they’re not able to pick things up. So it backs up the entire system, and it’s backed up now all the way to the ocean.”

Specific things Buttigieg should be addressing with the trucking industry, Innis said, are why there is an such an acute truck driver shortage and what could be done to address it, including whether or not to change hours of service limiting the number of work hours truckers can drive each day, at least in the short term.

Other ideas Innis brought up, amid a national discussion about making community college free, was whether or not to make truck driver training free or giving 0 percent loans for the cost of school. Additionally, Innis said regulations prohibiting truckers under age 21 from driving across state lines should be scrapped.

“If you can drive from Miami to Jacksonville, which is eight hours, shouldn’t you be able to drive from Jacksonville to Charleston, which is four?” Innis said. “So you see, these are the things that he needs to be talking with the industry about, and maybe taking steps to address. And with just those little things, even if you pick up 10 or 15 percent of capacity, you have really moved things forward, maybe enough to start to gradually bring down the backlog.”

But defenders of the Biden administration say the supply chain breakdowns are complications of the increased demand, not any mismanagement at the top.

Jason Miller, associate professor of supply chain management at the Michigan State University Eli Broad College of Business, echoed the sense the blame for supply chain issues should be placed on increased demand and not Buttigieg.

“The disruptions the import supply chain is experiencing are due to record demand for imports due to record consumer spending on durable goods,” Miller said. “As such, there is nothing Secretary Buttigieg could truly do in such a scenario.”

Indeed, as Miller pointed out, waterborne containerized imports by weight through the first nine months of 2021 are up 17 percent from the first nine months of 2019, according to data from the Census Bureau obtained from USA Trade Online.

“This is why I like to characterize the import supply chain as strained due to record demand, as opposed to broken,” Miller concluded.

Innis, however, said ascribing supply chain issues to the simple increase in demand for goods — while valid in some respects — was over-simplifying matters, pointing out supply chain issues include goods produced and distributed domestically.

“Meat is not being imported from China,” Innis said. “It’s not sitting on a container, nor is bread, nor paper products nor all of these things that aren’t showing up in our stores. My nephew works at Whole Foods. He says they’re getting half shipments from companies. That is not sitting out on the ocean. And so, I’m not buying it across every category.”

Lisa Anderson, a supply chain expert and blogger with the Claremont, Calif.-based LMA Consulting Group, said Buttigieg has fallen short in his role as transportation secretary amid the supply crisis, concluding with respect to objections over his performance: “Unfortunately, the criticism is warranted.”

Among the tasks Buttigieg should take on, Anderson said, are touring the ports, talking to truck drivers and owner operators to understand the constraints from the front lines, coordinating with groups such as the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, the center of the logistics supply chain and conduit from Asia to the rest of the United States and finding ways to bridge government interests with business interests for the common good.

“It is a complex issue and will require strong leadership, involvement, collaboration, innovation and new thinking (breaking the traditional thinking) to resolve,” Anderson concluded.

Right-wing critics have seized on the supply chain issues and turned them into an indictment of the transportation secretary, who with his spouse Chasten Buttigieg, is a new parent, electing to stay on paternity leave for two months as the crisis unfolded.

Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, in a segment last month calling Buttigieg missing in action over the supply chain crisis, speculated Buttigieg may have taken off work “learning how to breast feed,” which defenders of Buttigieg denounced as a homophobic attack (although the snide comment could easily be made of a man in an opposite-sex relationship opting to go on paternity leave). Later, Carlson in a subsequent segment posited affirmative action is only the reason Buttigieg has the role of transportation secretary, implying the position was given to the former South Bend mayor and presidential candidate simply because he’s gay.

Innis, distancing himself from other critics in right-wing media despite his conservative political affiliations, said he was “not going to criticize” Buttigieg’s decision to go on paternity leave, which he called “something that is a part of life.”

The coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted livelihoods and economies from top to bottom across the globe, has also been identified as a factor in complications with the global supply chain, regardless of the administration in power.

Mahour Parast, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment who specializes in supply chain risk and resilience management, said “external shocks” can be in play with such systems and pointed to coronavirus as an example of such a disruption.

“A supply chain that is designed to be efficient (e.g. cost-effective) cannot be simultaneously resilient to disruptions,” Parast said. “This means that when disruptions such as COVID happen, the supply chain has difficulty to be responsive (because the entire system is designed to be efficient and to minimize cost). To be efficient, redundancy should be eliminated because redundancy adds cost to the system. To be resilient, redundancy is needed because it increases a system’s responsiveness.”

As an example of an eliminated redudancy that could end up being needed in a supply chain crisis, Parast pointed to the decision to move operations overseas to benefit from lower production cost or access to raw materials, which he said leads to cost savings at the expense of responsiveness and agility.

“One can make supply chains more resilient by regionalizing supply chain operations in which case there are several locations to back up each other in case of disruptions,” Parast said.

The Biden administration, for its part, has declared steps it would take to ease supply chain issues, mostly consistent with the dispersement of U.S. government money as a short-term solution. On Tuesday, the White House announced funding for a pop-up container yard project underway at the Port of Savannah, a $420 million grant program for ports and marine highways launched within the next 45 days and identifying coastal and waterway projects by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers construction.

The White House announcement comes days after President Biden signed into law the bipartisan infrastructure package after months of negotiations among lawmakers, which he was set on Wednesday to promote at an event at the Port of Baltimore.

In his defense, Buttigieg has said in media appearances that supply chain issues aren’t the result of mismanagement, but prosperity and suppliers not being able to keep up under Biden administration policies seeking to lift the country up from economic stagnation.

Buttigieg, appearing on a CNN segment last month with Jake Tapper to respond to criticism about supply chain issues, said the problem exists because “retail sales are through the roof.”

“If you think about those images of ships, for example, waiting at anchor on the West Coast, you know, every one of those ships is full of record amounts of goods that Americans are buying because demand is up, because income is up, because the president has successfully guided this economy out of the teeth of a terrifying recession,” Buttigieg said. “Now the issue is, even though our ports are handling more than they ever have, record amounts of goods coming through, our supply chains can’t keep up.”

In June, the Biden administration set up a supply chain disruptions task force, which is led by the secretaries of commerce, transportation, and agriculture and charged with focusing on areas where a mismatch between supply and demand has been evident: homebuilding and construction, semi-conductors, transportation and agriculture and food.

A Department of Transportation spokesperson, asked by the Washington Blade to comment for this article, said Buttigieg in his role as co-chair of the Task Force “is focused on ensuring that the Department is doing all it can to address these issues and has made progress along the way.”

Among other examples, the spokesperson pointed to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach announcing they would expand hours of operation; new support for paid apprenticeship programs in the truck driving industry; and Union Pacific railroad announcing it would go to 24/7 operations.

Innis, at the end of the day, rejected the idea Buttigieg’s hands were tied, saying despite increased demand causing blockages in the supply chain “there are steps that can be taken to ease it, and those are not being taken.”

“When you drill down into certain product categories, there are severe problems that aren’t being addressed that have nothing to do with the oceans, or even the trains,” Innis said. “Because your bread isn’t riding on a train. It’s on a truck coming from a local area. And these shortages are real. You walk through the grocery store, you see it.”

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Amendment to weaken Respect for Marriage Act targets D.C.

Norton calls measure by Utah Sen. Lee ‘attack’ on LGBTQ residents

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U.S. Sen. Mike Lee seeks to weaken the Respect for Marriage Act. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton released a statement on Thursday disclosing that an amendment introduced by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to weaken the Respect for Marriage Act includes little-noticed language that would prohibit D.C. from enforcing laws protecting same-sex couples from discrimination.

Norton’s statement came one day after 12 GOP senators joined all 50 Democratic senators to approve a procedural motion known as cloture to block a filibuster and allow the Respect for Marriage Act to come up for a full Senate vote.

The act, which was passed by the House of Representatives earlier this year, would enshrine marriage equality into federal law, preventing states from banning same-sex marriage if the U.S. Supreme Court reverses its historic 2015 Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

Lee, who is among the Republican senators who opposes the Respect for Marriage Act, introduced his amendment on Nov. 16 shortly before the cloture motion was approved by a 62 to 37 vote. He was expected to introduce it again at the time the Respect for Marriage Act came up for a final vote on the Senate floor, which Capitol Hill observers say could take place this week.

Norton said she has called on the Senate to reject the Lee amendment. A spokesperson for Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), one of the lead sponsors of the Respect for Marriage Act, said no action was taken on the amendment on Wednesday, Nov. 16, and it was expected to receive little or no support if Lee were to introduce it again.

“Specifically, the amendment would prohibit D.C. from taking certain adverse actions, such as denying grants or contracts, against individuals and entities that otherwise unlawfully discriminate against same-sex couples if such individuals or entities have a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is a union of individuals of the opposite sex,” Norton said in her statement.

“While the amendment is framed as prohibiting the federal government from taking adverse action for violations of federal law, it defines the term federal government and federal law to include the D.C. government and D.C. law, respectively,” Norton said.

“This amendment is an attack on all LGBTQ+ Americans, but it also uniquely attacks D.C.’s LGBTQ+ residents,” said Norton in her statement. “Senator Mike Lee, who professes to support local control of local affairs, regularly tries to use Congress’ undemocratic power over D.C. to interfere in D.C.’s local affairs,” she said. “I have defeated all his prior attempts to interfere in D.C.’s local affairs, and I will defeat this one, too.”

In his own statement released on Nov. 16, Lee says the religious protections added to the Respect for Marriage Act as a bipartisan compromise among Senate Democrats and several key Republican senators, including Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), were “severely anemic and largely illusory.”

Lee said in his statement that supporters of the bill were misleading the public by claiming it would merely codify in federal law the Obergefell Supreme Court ruling.

“Religious Americans will be subject to potentially ruinous litigation, while the tax-exempt status of certain charitable organizations, educational institutions, and non-profits will be threatened,” his statement says. “My amendment would have shored up these vulnerabilities. It is a shame it wasn’t included,” he said, referring to lack of support for a vote to take it up on Nov. 16.

Eli Rosen, a spokesperson for Baldwin, told the Blade on Thursday that a bipartisan coalition of both Democratic and Republican senators as well as religious leaders strongly dispute Lee’s claim that the current Senate version of the Respect for Marriage Act will be harmful to religious organizations.

Rosen points out that religious universities and the Mormon Church are part of the coalition that supports the Senate’s changed version of the act, which was expected to be voted on Thursday or possibly shortly after the Thanksgiving holiday if the vote doesn’t take place this week. He noted that upon approval by the Senate, the measure would go back to the House, which was expected to approve the changes made to the House bill through the Senate compromise language.

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Politics

Cicilline joins clergy for rally in support of Respect for Marriage Act

Final U.S. Senate vote could take place Thursday

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U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I..) speaks during a rally in the Lower Senate Park on Nov. 16, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline, chair of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus and member of the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees, joined multi-faith clergy for a rally on Thursday at the Lower Senate Park in support of the Respect for Marriage Act.

Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who co-sponsored the U.S. House of Representative’s version of the legislation, which the lower chamber passed this summer, celebrated the U.S. Senate’s expected vote today to send the bill to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The congressman said that while faith has sometimes been misused as a cudgel to argue against same-sex marriage, “many people support marriage equality not despite their religious beliefs but rather because of them.”

“As a proud Jew, it’s part of my religious community and tradition,” Cicilline said. “We’re taught to heal the world and repair the broken world. I’m proud as a member of Congress and chair of the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus to follow our Biblical command to pursue justice.”

Cicilline’s message about the personal significance of the protections offered by the Respect for Marriage Act was echoed by, among other speakers, Revs. Nicole Garcia, faith work director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, and Paul Raushenbush, president of the Interfaith Alliance.

Yesterday, a dozen Senate Republicans joined their 50 Democratic colleagues to support a procedural cloture vote, which advanced the Respect for Marriage Act to a floor vote by the full chamber.

Biden and a chorus of LGBTQ, civil rights, and legal advocacy organizations celebrated the GOP members’ support of the bill, which leadership in the House and Senate have made a major priority for Congress’s lame duck session.

The Respect for Marriage Act presents a rare area on which the deeply divided legislature has struck an agreement to pass a significant bipartisan bill.

The impetus behind the legislation was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which saw a concurring opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas in which he pledged to revisit the high court’s precedent-making rulings on other matters, including same-sex marriage.

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2022 Midterm Elections

Republicans gain control of the U.S. House

Narrow GOP majority could bode well for blocking anti-LGBTQ bills.

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U.S. Capitol
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Certainty over Republicans’ control of the U.S. House of Representatives crystalized on Tuesday, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) fended off a bid for his position by fellow GOP Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.).

As the final votes from last week’s midterm elections continue to trickle in, by Wednesday evening it became clear that when the 118th Congress is seated in January, the legislature will be divided between the House and the U.S. Senate, where Democrats will either retain their 50-vote majority or win an extra seat, pending the results of Georgia’s runoff election in December.

It is the House, too, that will be divided, as the majority’s shift from blue to red was narrowly won, with only seven races whose results have not yet been tallied. Republicans’ control of the chamber comes with 218 seats, a feat they accomplished today. By 7:40 p.m. ET, Democrats had won 210 seats.

Leadership in both chambers has also been decided. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is poised to take over as House Speaker in January when the new Congress meets. McConnell, meanwhile, prevailed over a challenge for his Senate leadership by Scott, his Republican colleague.

“With a small Republican majority, we think there’s a greater chance of blocking anti-gay and anti-trans bills, which may now not even be brought up for a vote,” Geoff Wetrosky, campaign director for the Human Rights Campaign, told the Washington Blade by phone on Tuesday.

“Not only because of the composition of Congress, but also because last week’s election made clear that voters do not support this kind of extremism,” Wetrosky said.

Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, told the Blade by phone on Tuesday that “the first six months will be spent in internal warfare, but it’s clear that there won’t be anything positive coming out of the House for our community.”

There “very well may be negative bills,” Parker added, noting that with a slim majority in the lower chamber, there is unlikely to be much legislation, period.

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