Thursday September 20, 2012 | 09:30 AM

WASHINGTON – Stroll into almost any congressional office and you’re bound to see plaques and awards from organizations showing gratitude for the representative’s attention to their particular cause.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ latest award isn’t going to fit on any wall or desktop, however. In fact, office staffers and interns may find themselves competing for space with it.

Collins was this year’s recipient of the Congressional Sea Services Award, which is given to one member of Congress for their outstanding contributions to the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Merchant Marine. And since the Navy League of the United States is all about ships, perhaps it’s no surprise that the league’s award would be a bit, well, oversized.

The award is a binnacle: a metal stand measuring about 3 ½ feet tall that houses the ship’s compass for those on the helm. This particular binnacle was taken from the S.S. Sioux Falls Victory, a Victory ship that saw duty during World War II (earning a Battle Star award) and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

“I will proudly display the binnacle in my office,” Collins said during a presentation ceremony. “It’s going to take up a whole corner in my office.”

Top brass from all of the nautical service branches were present for the after-hours ceremony held in a Senate committee room (with wine, beer and finger food). They included: Robert Work, under secretary of the Navy; Adm. Robert Papp, commandant of the Coast Guard; Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for combat development; and David Matsuda, head of the U.S. Maritime Administration.

Speakers praised Collins, a Republican, for her support of the services and particularly for her work in the Senate Appropriations Committee on behalf of shipbuilding. That is, of course, an important industry for Collins’ home state, and Bath Iron Works and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard came up frequently.

“Without her help, we just wouldn’t have the number of ships that we have in the fleet now,” said Work. To emphasize his point, he noted that 31 ships have been approved for construction built at BIW since Collins arrived in Congress, eventually accounting for more than 10 percent of the Navy’s fleet.

(It’s worth noting that Collins’ colleague from Maine, retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe, is also heavily involved in maritime issues, serving on the committee that oversees the Coast Guard, fisheries, the merchant marine and maritime navigation. And Maine Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud also serve on committees that oversee the armed forces, the Coast Guard and maritime transportation).

Collins referred to the old saying “Bath built is best built” and, turning to Papp, said she was confident that BIW as well as smaller shipyards in Maine have the capability to produce more cutters, patrol boats and other vessels for the Coast Guard.

Papp, whose service receives a fraction of the funding of the other military branches and whose fleet includes cutters built in the 1960s, seemed to welcome the suggestion.

“Message was received loud and clear: more Coast Guard cutters . . . BIW . . . roger. We’ll take them any way we can get them,” he said with a grin.

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
Kevin can be reached at 317-6256 or kmiller@mainetoday.com

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