Despite its nearly century-long record of success, the Jones Act – America’s freight cabotage law – continues to be targeted by detractors as a measure that needs either to be weakened or altogether eliminated.
Cabotage laws have been the norm since the early days of our nation. The first Congress of the United States in 1789 restricted registration for coastal trades and fisheries to U.S.-built and U.S.-owned vessels and gave these vessels preferential treatment with respect to tonnage taxes and cargo import duties. Additional cabotage laws designed to fend off foreign operators were legislated during the years between that first cabotage law and the passage of the Jones Act over a century later.
Enacted in 1920 in response to America’s lack of preparedness for World War I, the Jones Act requires that cargo moving between U.S. domestic ports be carried on vessels that are crewed, built, owned and flagged American. It calls for providing the nation with a merchant marine that can transport goods between U.S. ports, increase national security during war times, and support a U.S. maritime industry. The measure’s sponsor, Senator Wesley Jones of Washington, declared, “Nations are not free that depend on foreign fleets to carry their products and bring them their supplies.”
Since its inception, the Jones Act has always enjoyed widespread support. Among its backers are legislators from both sides of the aisle; U.S. military leaders; non-partisan, non-profit think tanks; a number of well-respected journalists; published researchers; and every White House no matter the party. Without exception, Jones Act supporters concur that the law is critical to the national, economic and homeland security needs of the United States; its value has been proven time and again.
According to the American Maritime Partnership coalition, whose member organizations include MTD affiliates, the measure since its origin has:
- Made sure that 70 percent of the oceangoing self-propelled vessels in the Jones Act fleet are militarily useful, which is of vital importance as 95 percent of materiel used by forces overseas moves by water;
- Moved an average of 1 billion tons worth of cargo every year with a market value of $400 billion;
- Pumped $29 billion in annual wages into the American economy;
- Sustained nearly 500,000 jobs directly and indirectly;
- Added $46 billion to the value of U.S. economic output each year;
- Produced $11 billion in taxes annually; and
- Maintained a pool of skilled civilian mariners capable of meeting the nation’s strategic sealift needs.
Regardless of its merit, the Jones Act regularly comes under fire from those who either truly don’t understand it or whose agendas don’t include preserving the U.S. Merchant Marine.
A notable example occurred in 2010 during the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. On that occasion, the Jones Act and the Obama Administration were targets of drastically inaccurate criticism by some media outlets and elected representatives who falsely claimed that the Jones Act was impeding cleanup operations following the fatal explosion, which also resulted in a cataclysmic oil spill.
The administration and then-national incident response commander, U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, refuted those false claims, and the official government report on the spill response later confirmed that the Jones Act in no way slowed the cleanup. The facts are that the Jones Act did not apply where the spill occurred (50 miles from the U.S.), and foreign-flag assistance was utilized (along with U.S.-flag tonnage) essentially from the start. Further, the administration quickly set up an expedited Jones Act-waiver process in case any were needed for related operations closer to shore.
More recently, critics wrongly claimed the Jones Act hampered relief efforts in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Even though nothing could have been further from the truth, Jones Act opponents used their flawed accusations as a foundation to call for weakening or eliminating the law. It was of little consequence to them that the backdrop for their claims showed stacks and stacks of containers delivered to the Port of San Juan by U.S.-flag vessels. They willingly neglected the fact that Jones Act ships were offloading in Puerto Rico within hours after the first port reopened and that these vessels continue to deliver vital cargoes even today. They completely overlooked the fact that because of damaged roads and numerous other infrastructure problems, significant portions of the waterborne cargo initially stayed in the ports. They coasted right past the fact that none of these circumstances had anything to do with any maritime law.
Succinctly put, virtually every statement put forth in each of the former situations as justification to weaken or kill the Jones Act was a lie; once again, the Jones Act was falsely accused.
For these and other reasons, the MTD, its affiliates and its Port Maritime Councils must remain resolutely committed to doing everything in our power to ensure that the integrity of the Jones Act remains firmly intact.
The MTD once again vows to continue its work with its affiliates, its Port Maritime Councils and grassroots organizations like the American Maritime Partnership to promote and protect the Jones Act in every possible way, including by educating elected officials and the American public about the critical magnitude and irreplaceable value of the Jones Act.
Approved 2018 MTD Executive Board Meeting