Puerto Rico and the Jones Act Waiver

Puerto Rico and the Jones Act Waiver

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The Trump Administration announced a temporary Jones Act waiver on Thursday, September 28, eight days after Hurricane Maria ravaged the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. The decision came after calls from politicians on both sides of the aisle to waive the act. They hoped that doing so would increase the flow of aid to the island territory.

The act states that goods traveling between U.S. ports must be carried by ships staffed with American workers. Politicians clamored for a waiver the whole week. Many assumed that lifting the century-old act would mean more medicine, clothing, and food delivered to Puerto Rico.

John McCain, one of the act’s harshest critics, recently introduced a bill for permanent repeal, claiming the law drives up prices for people in locations like Puerto Rico, Alaska, and Hawaii. However, the Department of Homeland Security has stated that an extension of the waiver past its ten-day limit won’t be necessary.

It’s easy for merchant mariners and aspiring seamen to get lost in the back-and-forth argument surrounding the Jones Act waiver. That’s why we at Out2Sea.com figured we’d provide our readers with some background, as well as our thoughts on the future of the law.

Diving into history  

The Jones Act has protected American maritime jobs since 1920. And, with some minor hiccups, it’s been in effect since then. Hurricane Maria isn’t the first disaster to necessitate a waiver of the act – the Trump Administration also waived it during Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. Other administrations have temporarily disposed of it in cases of natural disasters, like Hurricane Sandy, for example.

The Department of Homeland Security grants all requests (usually at the behest of shipping companies) for a Jones Act waiver. The department can only grant a waiver if it is in the interest of national defense, or if it comes from the Secretary of Defense. In the case of our most recent hurricane, Secretary Mattis did request a waiver.

In 1920, after World War I, our leaders saw things a little differently than they do now. They wanted to nurture U.S. naval power during peacetime with a healthy, commercial shipping fleet. They also saw the need for a steady supply of manpower to deliver goods if a war broke out. These concerns still have merit, but there are other reasons to protect the Jones Act.

For starters, the law accounts for well over 150,000 maritime jobs and billions of dollars in economic output. And we aren’t the only country who thinks this legislation is a good idea. Many other developed countries with a strong maritime fleet have their own versions of the Jones Act.

Beyond the Jones Act waiver

So, should mariners worry about the future? After all, the administration waived the Jones Act twice this year and has previously indicated its lack of support for the act.

Given the events of the past week in Puerto Rico, merchant mariners should, perhaps, breathe a temporary sigh of relief. As ships have delivered more and more goods to the island, it’s becoming clear that there are enough U.S.-flagged vessels to handle the increased load. Furthermore, the Department of Homeland Security never received any requests from the commercial sector to extend the Jones Act waiver.

At least for now, we can expect our government to protect our industry. Shipbuilding companies, unions, and manufacturers have always had a strong voice when it comes to the Jones Act. Their voices have almost always unanimously called for lawmakers to protect the act, due to the good it does for the economy. Their voices remain strong, and any movement to repeal the act for good faces a long, hard battle.

In the face of a hurricane, we must always do what’s best for afflicted communities. But let’s not take the Jones Act, which protects our industry, for granted!

Do you have any thoughts on the Jones Act waiver and the future of the law? Let us know by leaving a comment!

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