What Should We Do About The Jones Act?

Survivors review the damage caused by Hurricane Maria in Roseau, Dominica, on September 20.(AFP)

After a particularly brutal 2017 for hurricanes, Puerto Rico and much of the American South found themselves devastated by floods, power outages, structural damage, and much more.

And, of course, instead of immediately offering aid or figuring out a plan to help, a dedicated crew of senators led by John McCain himself leapt into action…to once again discuss repealing the Jones Act.

Their continued insistence on this issue might be better understood with a little context as to what, exactly, the Jones Act is, and why people continue to bring it up in times of maritime-related disasters. The history of the Jones Act itself is vast and complicated, but I’ll leave it to O’Bryan Law to sum it up for us:

“A law originally passed by Congress in the 1920’s, the Jones Act is a negligence statute designed to protect the rights of maritime workers who have fallen ill or gotten injured while working on the water as crewmembers. Speaking to the policy and reasoning behind the law, the Supreme Court in 1949 declared that the Act ‘…was designed to put on the . . . industry some of the costs for the legs, eyes, arms, and lives . . . consumed in its operations’”

Doesn’t sound too bad so far, right? Any law intended to protect jobs and the safety of the workers doing those jobs should be commended, and yet every time a hurricane attacks our shores, the discussion about repealing it comes right back.

John McCain, frequent opponent of the Jones Act.

Why is that? Opponents of the Jones Act have long argued that the economic impact of the act affects our ability to help areas in need of hurricane recovery and incurs a higher cost than is needed. A recent post from The Hill suggests that repealing the Jones Act could reduce the cost of importing goods to Puerto Rico by some $200 million annually by reducing the cost of those goods by 20%, goods that could prove invaluable during times of crises such as hurricane recovery.

This additional cost is incurred from the Jones Act, and how it strives to protect jobs. Under the Jones Act, any vessel transporting goods within American waters (which counts Puerto Rico under most circumstances, as a U.S. territory) needs to be transported by American-built and American-staffed vessels. Normally this isn’t a huge problem, as most transport ships in U.S. waters are headed to other destinations in the continental United States, but in the specific example of Puerto Rican hurricane aid, critics point to the fact that the Jones Act is having a bigger impact on Puerto Rico than its temporary suspension (or even full repeal) would have on American maritime trade.

As a result, the Jones Act was suspended in the specific case of aid coming to Puerto Rico, but remained in place under every other circumstance. So far, defenders of the act don’t see any benefit in going farther than the temporary suspension on Puerto Rico’s behalf, and many of them predict greater economic damage in the event of a repeal that would outweigh the supposed good it might do.

The Federalist claims (interestingly enough, as they’ve also published articles calling for the dismantling of the Act) that over 40,000 vessels employing half a million workers would be impacted if the Act were to be repealed. It wouldn’t suddenly result in some 500,000 people being jobless, but it would cause a slow trickle — as cheaper shipping options become viable, more revenue and jobs would (pardon the pun) drift away from the U.S. maritime industry, and the ripple effect would affect hundreds of thousands of people.

Jones Act ships under construction at Philly Shipyard, fomerly Aker Philadelphia Shipyard. File Photo

Many defenders believe it would have an impact on national security, as well. Loren Thompson, contributor to Forbes, argues that above and beyond the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in shipyards (someone has to build all those Jones Act-protected vessels, after all) the Navy would need to spend billions of dollars building its own sealift vessels, as much of the Navy’s transportation capabilities rely on American-built, civilian-owned commercial vehicles that supplement their reserve sealift ships. While some critics consider this a short-term problem, the fact of the matter is that this would be a massive cost that the Navy budget (and taxpayers at large) would be completely unprepared for, and could severely impact our defenses at sea.

So…what should we do about the Jones Act? Right now its defenders seem pretty convinced it’ll stick around, but should it? Most sources say yes. At the risk of sounding heartless, most of its defenders argue that the long-term disadvantages of repealing the Act, and the impact it would have on the economy, isn’t worth the short-term gains in helping Puerto Rico (which we managed to do anyway with a temporary suspension of the Act in regards to Puerto Rico-bourne shipments).

And at the end of the day, that’s really the only argument the detractors have: it might save more in the long run, but there’s not a good way to prove that, and in the meantime the maritime workers of America can rest easy knowing they’ve got the protection of the Jones Act to back them up.

At least, until the next time someone complains about how expensive shipping is.

Freelance writer from just outside Detroit. Mostly movies and video games, sometimes grown-up stuff too.