Puerto Rico is in crisis. A massive quantity of relief supplies is needed to help rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Because these supplies must largely be shipped by cargo vessel, it has drawn attention to a nearly-century-old law called the Jones Act.
Long-standing opponents of the Jones Act haven’t let the crisis go to waste, and have exploited the humanitarian tragedy in Puerto Rico to advance a long-standing goal of full repeal. Piling on are those seeking some means of going after the President. Hit pieces on this legislation, widely considered the foundation of U.S. maritime policy, have been deployed throughout the media.
For instance, Matt Yglesias has put together a long piece “voxsplaining” the Jones Act, citing a number of sources offering criticism of the law, but apparently never picking up the phone to talk with someone in the maritime industry. Really, it’s not hard. Others have taken to Twitter to call for repeal:
This is insane. Repeal the Jones Act already! https://t.co/JD2SfIA79h
— Joy Reid (@JoyAnnReid) September 27, 2017
For those that don’t know: The Jones Act simply requires that vessels which transport cargo from one U.S. port to another U.S. port (including ports in Puerto Rico, part of American territory) must be U.S.-flagged, U.S.-crewed, U.S.-owned, and U.S.-built. This “cabotage” law is similar to one that applies to airlines serving U.S. cities. The Jones Act preserves our domestic market for American seafarers, American shipowners, and American shipyards (all of whom pay U.S. income taxes), rather than enabling low-wage foreign-flag ship operators to penetrate our economy.
It is especially ironic that folks like Mr. Yglesias, Ms. Reid, and their fellow travelers on the left would go after the Jones Act, considering it is highly prized by U.S labor unions and considered by many to be a key pillar supporting American blue collar jobs. Likewise, repeal has been advocated at places who aren’t exactly their ideological compadres—Heritage, Reason, and The Federalist, for example. Nonetheless, it serves as a convenient zero-day vehicle for attacking the President, hoping to make this his “Katrina moment”, with some saying it is because Puerto Rico doesn’t have congressional representation, or worse, because a lot of brown people live there. Guys, ever think of keeping your gunpowder dry?
Simply put, repeal of the Jones Act would be an epic disaster for the U.S. maritime industry, threaten the environment and safety of workers in the U.S., and would critically wound our preparedness for global conflict.
While firm supporters of free markets and free trade understandably oppose protectionist laws, the maritime sector has a number of unique qualities that make it categorically different. Chief among these is the inherent mobility of marine assets. This is illustrated by way of example:
If I desired to construct a textile factory in the U.S., to serve U.S. markets, I would understandably be required to comply with U.S. building and land regulation, employ U.S. persons, adhere to U.S. employment and environmental law, and would naturally utilize U.S. construction companies to build my facility.
Absent the Jones Act, if I desired to similarly provide cabotage (U.S. port to U.S. port) cargo or passenger service, I could completely skirt U.S. regulation by constructing my vessel in a low-cost Asian shipyard; hire foreign crew at cut-rate wages, benefits, and working conditions; avoid complying with U.S. maritime safety and environmental regulations; and just drive my vessel into the U.S. to do business in domestic waters. It is as if my factory, built by foreign labor, employing foreigners, and exempt from U.S. regulation, was plopped down in the middle of Missouri across the street from a similar factory that is subject to all the U.S. regulations. My U.S.-compliant rival would rightly complain about an unfair competitive environment!
In addition to the unique mobility issue is that of our military readiness. Our decades of relative peace have faded this argument into the background, but it remains crucial that the U.S. maintain an independent shipbuilding and marine cargo capability to serve our nation in wartime. The Jones Act ensures this capability through a stable industry in which we develop U.S. persons as qualified merchant mariners, and maintain U.S.-flag vessels that can be mobilized in an emergency (it is notable that, for instance, Crowley has mobilized a fleet of Jones Act relief vessels, which according to DHS, reportedly exceeds the available port capacity in Puerto Rico).
Additionally, the Jones Act protects our natural environment by ensuring that only U.S. regulated vessels operate in domestic trade, and protect the safety of the maritime workforce by being subject to U.S. safety regulations. Would you really want to see a lowest-common-denominator-built-and-flagged cargo vessel, crewed by severely-underpaid and overworked foreign mariners plying the highly-sensitive waters of the Mississippi? It’s quite hard to imagine its foreign owner, with no physical assets in the U.S., would at all be interested in cooperating with authorities and making people whole were it to spill fuel, or run aground and shut down a major American waterway.
Nevermind the good blue collar U.S. jobs that would be lost in a full repeal. Nine out of ten U.S. mariners work in the domestic trade. More than 40,000 vessels are in the Jones Act fleet, and the domestic maritime industry accounts for more than half a million U.S. jobs. Maritime jobs are prime examples of skilled labor, requiring rigorous training and continuous individual development. U.S. maritime academies, and a robust apprenticeship tradition pass crucial knowledge from generation to generation. All of this would be lost if the Jones Act were repealed.
There are fair arguments and discussions of how the Jones Act should apply to overseas states and territories, particularly in emergencies. There is indeed a waiver process to address just that. But instead of thoughtful discussion about waivers for this specific crisis, politicians and pundits are exploiting the disaster to push for wholesale repeal, thinking it a panacea for Puerto Rico’s problems. In most cases, it is a clear case of the punditry’s chronic Chesterton’s Fence problem. Few understand or appreciate the importance of the Jones Act to U.S. maritime policy, simply wishing to tear it down because they think it’s in their way.
The Jones Act has broad, bipartisan support that endures nearly a century after it was passed into law. Repeal would gut our domestic maritime industry, kill jobs and destroy the lineage of qualified U.S. merchant mariners, threaten the environment, threaten worker safety, and ultimately make us highly unprepared to transport our tanks, personnel, and other cargo in a military conflict, all to somewhat reduce the cost of shipping diapers and bottled water?
Editor Note: An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Federalist.