Bentley clout missed on Capitol Hill

January 31, 1995|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

Helen Delich Bentley fought for defense contracts to keep the Sparrows Point shipyard alive and strong-armed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dig the harbor channels deeper. Around the world, she buttonholed shipping executives, who knew she could turn the federal spigot off and on for maritime subsidies.

In hiring Mrs. Bentley as a consultant, the port of Baltimore has hedged its bets against losing her indisputable influence in Washington. But even so, in Congress and federal agencies, a relentless prodder is missing and uncertainty prevails.

"The void is back," said Richard A. Lidinsky Jr., vice president of governmental affairs for Sea Containers America Inc. in Washington and a former Maryland port official. "You're losing a maritime legend and it's got to hurt," he said. "Just how will reveal itself in the issues."

The predicament for Baltimore stemming from Mrs. Bentley's absence in Congress is complicated by the abolition of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, where she was a prominent voice for years.

That panel, which oversaw key shipping industry legislation, has been effectively replaced by two House subcommittees dealing with maritime and port issues. And so far, no Maryland representative has been named to either panel.

"That's got to hurt," said William K. Hellmann, a member of the Maryland Port Commission who formerly headed the state's Department of Transportation.

Furthermore, one of those subcommittees is chaired by Rep. Herbert H. Bateman, a Republican whose district includes part of the port of Hampton Roads, Va., Baltimore's main competitor in the intense battle for shipping companies and cargo in the mid-Atlantic region.

In the tight-fisted Republican Congress, the Maryland delegation must now fight its perennial battle for crucial dredging dollars without Mrs. Bentley's clout. It also will confront a complicated review of U.S. maritime regulations and consider abolishing the Federal Maritime Commission, which Mrs. Bentley headed during the Nixon and Ford administrations.

The job of overseeing port and maritime issues now rests with a delegation that once typically looked to the 71-year-old maritime specialist for guidance.

The port "was such a defining issue for her," said Rep. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican and Mrs. Bentley's successor in Maryland's 2nd Congressional District. "She did a very good job, but that's not to say we won't do a good job."

"We've got a talented Maryland delegation," said Sigmund Shapiro, president of Samuel Shapiro and Co. freight forwarders in Baltimore. "But they sure have lost a lot of power."

Historically, the nitty gritty legislative work on maritime issues has begun in the House. Of the three dozen, arcane maritime bills considered every year, Mrs. Bentley usually sponsored or co-sponsored two-thirds of them. It was her encyclopedic knowledge of the industry, her memory bank and her ability to talk with dockworkers and executives alike that earned Mrs. Bentley respect among members of Congress who, time and again, deferred to her in committee meetings.

"She's just not replaceable," says Gloria Cataneo Rudman, director of the American Maritime Congress, official voice of the shipping industry in Washington. "I think the port of Baltimore will have to work a little harder, especially on the shipbuilding issues."

The brusque Mrs. Bentley is noted for whacking through the bureaucracy, keeping the pressure on mid-level and senior level bureaucrats.

"What you have to do is keep prodding them," she said. "And prodding has always been my favorite thing to do."

After serving in the House of Representatives for 10 years, Mrs. Bentley gave up her 2nd District seat to run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, which she lost to Ellen R. Sauerbrey in the GOP primary in September. Two weeks ago, she was hired by the Maryland Port Commission as an hourly consultant, with a salary not to exceed $75,000 a year.

By law, Mrs. Bentley is prohibited from lobbying her former colleagues for one year, though she is allowed to offer advice to members of Congress and others who seek it. Mrs. Bentley says not being in Congress will give her more time to travel and work on luring steamship lines to Baltimore -- and keeping the ones that are now here.

Throughout the years, she has maintained close personal ties with steamship executives. And last week, she made her first overseas trip, trying to shore up business for the port of Baltimore on visits to London, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. "With what's happening in the cargo-sharing and vessel-sharing, it's going to become a tougher and tougher picture for ports everywhere," she said in an interview just before leaving on the weeklong trip. Essentially, there are too many ports chasing too few ships.

That fact was vividly underscored recently when Maersk Line, one of the port's largest steamship companies, shifted one-fifth of its service from Baltimore to the port in Norfolk, Va. A week later, a major vessel-sharing alliance chose Norfolk over Baltimore for its new service to the Far East. Because of the competition for steamship lines and cargo, Baltimore must keep its channels open to assure easy passage here.

And when she is able to resume prowling the hallways of Congress in 1996, dredging will be the single most critical issue, she said, with the state needing $3 million to $5 million in federal funds to keep its channels open.

Dredging is to ports what extra lanes are to highways, or runways are to airports. But it is a time-consuming process, mired in bureaucratic red tape.

"The port commission's not hiring a congresslady. . .true, she doesn't get a vote any more," said Mr. Hellmann. "But she still has access. She still has respect."

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