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The White House steps in to unclog the overwhelmed shipping industry

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So there's this little kids game called rush hour. There's an online version and also a physical game with a little plastic board. Little plastic vehicles are blocking each other in every direction in a gridlocked intersection. And your challenge is to untangle them. If you should order that little plastic game as a holiday gift this year, you may or may not receive it in time because we are all in the middle of a giant worldwide game of rush hour. Ports and other parts of the supply chain are backed up and overwhelmed from the United States to China and beyond. The White House is now stepping in.

And NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid is here. Asma, good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the plan?

KHALID: So the White House announced a deal yesterday to get the Port of Los Angeles to operate 24/7. The nearby Port of Long Beach is already doing that. And the president is pitching these extended hours as a big step in helping to unclog the supply chain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: By increasing the number of late-night hours of operation and opening up for less crowded hours when the goods can move faster, today's announcement has the potential to be a game changer.

KHALID: And Steve, you heard the president there say potential because it also depends on what private companies do. The White House did say it has commitments from some major retailers in this space - companies like Walmart - to move more goods during off-peak hours.

INSKEEP: Well, you raise an interesting question. What exactly can a president force anybody to do when these are private companies and unionized workers?

KHALID: It's a really tricky situation, Steve. I mean, the government does not own and operate the shipping lines. Most every component in the supply chain is in the hands of the private sector. So the government cannot dictate anything. It does have the power of influence. They can help with data-sharing, get people to talk to one another. And, you know, with the - you talk about the port. There was this issue of ensuring that the longshoremen sign off on working longer hours. And so the White House can help facilitate some of those conversations. The tricky thing is, you know, they need to do that over and over again. One expert I spoke with pointed out that even if the bottleneck is solved at the Port of Los Angeles, the next problem could be at a rail yard, at a warehouse. It could be a truck-driver shortage. And that's just complicated to solve all along the supply chain.

I spoke with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the port announcement for our NPR Politics Podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PETE BUTTIGIEG: The best way to think about it is that it's necessary but not sufficient to help reduce some of these bottlenecks. These ports - LA and Long Beach - just the two of them represent about 40% of containers coming into this country. So them going to 24/7 is a big deal. But you can think of that as basically opening the gates. Next, we've got to make sure that we have all of the other players going through those gates, getting the containers off of the ship so that there's room for the next ship, getting those containers out to where they need to be.

KHALID: And, you know, he said part of what the White House is trying to do is to get everyone - retailers, shippers, labor - to come together and talk. And, you know, it's not just about the short-term problems. You hear from the White House, this is partly about old infrastructure. And they feel like the bipartisan infrastructure bill - $17 billion in port improvements - could potentially help.

INSKEEP: OK. So You want to make a sale there of the bill that they're trying to get through Congress - or the bills they're trying to get through Congress. But are the agreements that they're making right now, like this one at the Port of Los Angeles, likely to produce a more normal holiday season?

KHALID: You know, Steve, they're being careful not to overpromise that this is all going to be fixed by Christmas. Experts say this is going to take a while, probably until the Lunar New Year in China, when factories will slow down - that's in February of next year - or, they say, until American buying habits stabilize from the pandemic. They say Americans have just been buying a lot more.

I spoke to Willy Shih about this. He's a professor at Harvard Business School. He told me, look, you know, when you talk about Christmas, businesses need inventory ahead of the holidays. It does them no good if items show up in January and they got to put those items on sale.

WILLY SHIH: If you ship things from China today, there's a good chance you're not going to make the Christmas selling season. And that's why there's so much concern right now.

KHALID: You know, it does come down to, Steve, I feel, the difficulty of trying to fix a problem that is essentially, as I've said, in the hands of the private sector. And when you talk about politics here, it raises a question of, does the Biden team end up owning a problem in trying to fix something that it can't actually entirely fix on its own?

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid, thanks for your insights.

KHALID: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.