Ignore the Critics, The Jones Act Enhances Puerto Rican Relief

Ignore the Critics, The Jones Act Enhances Puerto Rican Relief
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Recent reports from some news outlets have claimed the Jones Act; a nearly hundred-year old law that helps support America’s domestic shipping industry, has hampered the aid and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. One of the more recent iterations of this attack line, referenced in a October 9th Huffington Post story quoted Senator John McCain who argued “the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria.” The truth is quite different. 

Logistical issues are plaguing recovery efforts for sure, but none of them have to do with a shortage of supplies on the island. Since Hurricane Maria, Crowley, one of the two main Jones Act shippers to the Island, has delivered more than 6,500 loads of FEMA and commercial cargo from 20 vessels.

At one point more than 10,000 containers of supplies were sitting in the Port of San Juan, ready to move out on trucks. Fuel shortages, lack of power, damaged roadways and a breakdown in basic communication infrastructure on the island prevented the trucks necessary to distribute the supplies from arriving at port but there are signs in recent days that the backlog is easing.  

The island’s relative isolation from the US mainland has also affected the recovery. Unlike Texas and Florida, where relief could roll in on trucks and trains from across the country, the only way to feasibly supply Puerto Rico with emergency supplies beyond costly airlift in the very immediate term is via cargo vessels.

Jones Act shippers serve as that critical link, ensuring reliable and regular service between the United States and Puerto Rico. In times of crisis these shippers can quickly be called upon to whisk aid supplies to areas of need. International shippers meanwhile abide by no such commitment. There is no telling when or if their ships would be available to deliver emergency aid supplies.

Without the law the American flagged vessels currently called upon in times of crisis would no longer be available. Most if not all of these domestic shippers would go out of business, unable to compete against the foreign subsidies and lax safety laws governing many international shippers. This would leave limited options and could force our Navy to assume the expense of replicating current sealift capabilities at a cost of $65 billion plus annual ongoing obligations in the billions. 

But the Jones Act goes much further than just providing a logistical lifeline to the island. It has quite literally, enabled a real lifeline on the island as well. Power and water shortages have left many of Puerto Rico’s hospitals unable to treat patients. As a result the USNS Comfort, one of two hospital ships owned by the Navy, is currently docked in San Juan, providing medical relief to hurricane-affected residents.

The USNS Comfort was built and receives regular maintenance in a privately run American shipyard and is operated by civilians in the Military Sealift Command. Neither the shipyard nor these merchant mariners would exist if not for the Jones Act.

The fact of the matter is the international shipbuilding market is quite distorted and American shipbuilders are at a distinct disadvantage. Shipyards in Asia, where the bulk of global commercial shipbuilding occurs, are heavily subsidized, supported by government financing, or are effectively government owned. The law not only helps level the playing field but also ensures the design teams, production workforces and supplier base necessary to construct humanitarian ships such as the USNS Comfort remains intact.

The Jones Act is also at the crux of the United States Merchant marine. Requirements under the law that American flagged vessels be operated by a crew that is at least 75% American allows our seamen to compete against lower paid and less qualified foreign sailors, ensuring there are enough trained and qualified civilians needed to operate aid ships such as the USNS Comfort.

There is no denying Puerto Rico faces a series of problems, from its ongoing debt issues to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, but the Jones Act is not one of them. Several economic studies, including an International Trade Administration report, have bolstered this fact finding it was “unable to provide an estimate of the welfare gains” from repealing the Jones Act. Given that almost two-thirds of vessels that call on Puerto Rico are foreign-flagged ships, its safe to say the law is not blocking access to international markets or the flow of supplies from non-American ships to the island either. Yet while the economic arguments against the law are overblown the impact the law has on aid efforts cannot be overstated.

The direct connection the Jones Act guarantees to the American mainland is invaluable. When disaster strikes and domestic maritime vessels are needed to deliver emergency supplies and provide humanitarian aid, the law ensures the crew and capacity are there to protect and provide comfort to our fellow American citizens.

Travis Korson is a Senior Fellow with Frontiers of Freedom a public policy think tank devoted to promoting a strong national defense, free markets, individual liberty and constitutionally limited government.

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