DemDaily: On Puerto Rico and The Jones Act

September 29, 2017

While millions of people in Puerto Rico await relief following the destruction of the US territory by Hurricane Maria, political opponents of the Jones Act are using the disaster to push for elimination of the law.

The Jones Act, otherwise known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, requires goods shipped between American ports to be carried out exclusively by ships built primarily in the United States, and to have U.S. citizens as its owners and crews.

The federal statute, unknown to most US citizens, was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson two years after World War I ended -- as a protective measure against foreign competition, and to ensure a vibrant United States maritime industry and force for national defense.

Former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both touted it as crucial to national security, ensuring a quality, safe US shipping industry, and to reducing dependency on foreign-owned vessels. President Trump, until now, has concurred.

The Controversy

In the immediate aftermath of the September 20th storm, the Jones Act was decried as the cause for the delay in getting much-needed medicine, food and fuel to the island's devastated inhabitants -- preventing foreign vessels or non US-flag carrying ships from entering the port.

Senator John McCain, a long-time critic, introduced legislation to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the law and, at the request of Puerto Rico's Governor Rossello, President Trump issued a 10-day waiver of the Jones Act.

Crowley Shipping containers await distribution at Port of San Juan

The Facts
In reality, however, the purely political action does nothing to resolve the real issue at hand - the lack of infrastructure and resources to distribute the aid to those in need.

As confirmed by Department of Homeland Security, which administers the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), moving the goods around the island is the biggest challenge due to washed out roads, failed bridges, a lack of electricity, and the inability to communicate with truck drivers and other workers.

An estimated 10,000 shipping containers with critical relief supplies have been sitting in the port of San Juan and Puerto Rico for days and the three largest American ship operators in Puerto Rico are at capacity at their terminals.

Cargo from around the world can, in fact, be imported and almost two-thirds of the vessels that regularly call on Puerto Rico are foreign-flag ships.

The Jones Act only limits foreign vessels to servicing one American port at a time, requiring them to leave for a foreign port before returning. Stops in multiple consecutive ports must be handled by American ships and crews as a matter of homeland security, to ensure a robust shipbuilding industry and a vetted, well-trained merchant marine to support our military.

Every major maritime nation in the world protects some part of its domestic shipping with laws similar to the Jones Act.

US Maritime

There are six major Maritime unions, which collectively represent 120,000 maritime workers who have served the country on the docks and at sea in peace and war since 1875.  They include: the American Radio Association (ARA), Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific (IBU), International Longshoremen's Association (ILA),  International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association and Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P).

In a release Thursday, the Maritime Labor Alliance stated they do not oppose Jones Act waivers in emergencies where there are not enough U.S. flag ships available, however:

*  There are currently fifteen U.S.-flag ships and U.S.-flag oceangoing tug/barge combinations regularly serving Puerto Rico.

*  Other U.S. flag commercial vessels are available and there are over sixty government owned reserve cargo vessels that can be called into action and fully operational with 72 hours.

*   There are sufficient numbers of US ships and mariners to respond to the relief effort right now, and sufficient numbers to sustain the efforts well into the future.

The Jones Act supports a total of over 500,000 maritime industry and related industry jobs in the United States, and represents over $100 billion in economic output.  It represents American jobs, American quality and American security.  We need the Jones Act.

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: NPR, NBC, NewYorkTimes, CNN, Washington Examiner, MLA

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