This was a vote on an amendment by Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) that would prohibit the disturbance of sunken military aircraft only if such aircraft were carrying out non-commercial missions when they were sunk. This amendment was offered to legislation providing annual funding for Defense Department programs.
Current law already prohibited the disturbance of sunken military aircraft under the Sunken Military Aircraft Act, which was enacted in 2005. Under this amendment, however, the Sunken Military Aircraft Act would only apply to aircraft that were performing non-commercial duties when they were sunk.
Mack’s amendment was related to a legal dispute between Florida-based deep-sea explorers and the government of Spain over sunken treasure. The Associated Press’s Greg Bluestein reported: “Florida deep-sea explorers asked a federal appeals court Tuesday [May 24, 2011] to overturn an earlier ruling that 17 tons of treasure recovered from a sunken Spanish galleon belongs to Spain, deepening a long-running battle over a trove worth an estimated $500 million that has unfolded not on the high seas but in federal courtrooms….The ship, called the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, was sunk by British warships in the Atlantic in 1804 while sailing back from South America with more than 200 people on board. Odyssey created an international splash in May 2007 when it announced that it raised more than 500,000 silver coins and other artifacts from the wreck and flew the treasure back to Tampa….Much of Tuesday's arguments centered on whether the Mercedes was classified as a warship or merchant ship. That's an important distinction because Odyssey's attorneys argued that if the vessel was destroyed during commercial activity, Spain would have no firm claim to the property.”
Mack urged support for his amendment: “…The purpose of my amendment is a mere clarification of the Sunken Military Craft Act. The fundamental objective of the Sunken Military Craft Act was to protect sunken United States military vessels, aircraft and spacecraft. This technical correction will make clear that the term `sunken military craft' will only include vessels, warships, naval auxiliaries or other vessels on military, noncommercial service at the time they were sunk.”
Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ) opposed the amendment: “It's my understanding that this amendment draws a distinction between such vessels that were in noncommercial service versus commercial service. And although I think I understand the justification for that distinction, here is our concern with the consequence of that. It is our understanding there is pending litigation between the nation of Spain and a private venture over the disposition of rights to a sunken vessel that at least at one time--I suppose the time it was sunk--may have had some claim in the United States….Our concern is that by taking statutory action here, we may be in some way interfering with the outcome of that litigation or the process of that litigation.”
Andrews contended that the U.S. Navy was opposed to Mack’s amendment, and urged members to vote against it: “We have spoken to the Navy about this, and the Navy's objection is predicated upon its concern that there could be an impact on the litigation that is pending that I made reference to and possibly claims of other sovereign nations in similar situations.”
The House agreed to this amendment by a vote of 227-293. Voting “yea” were 199 Republicans and 28 Democrats. 157 Democrats—including a majority of progressives—and 36 Republicans voted “nay.” As a result, the House agreed to an amendment that would prohibit the disturbance of sunken military aircraft only if such aircraft were carrying out non-commercial missions when they were sunk.