In 1920, after World War I, the U.S. Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act in part to create and foster a safe network of the American merchant marine. The Act was placed into law in response to the devastation inflicted upon the U.S. fleet by the German navy during that war. Referred to as the Jones Act, it requires all goods shipped in between ports controlled by the U.S. to be transported exclusively by U.S. vessels and primarily operated by Americans.
The Act promotes a merchant marine for the nation that can transport goods between U.S. ports, provide support for a national maritime industry, and increase national security during times of war. The law is nearly 100 years old and has undergone several amendments over time – the most recent of which was in 2006.
At times the Jones Act has been waived on a temporary basis, including during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and in the wake of Hurricane Maria by the Trump Administration in the fall 2017 in order to provide accelerated relief to Puerto Rico during its recovery.
Subcommittee hearing touts the Jones Act
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation recently held a hearing on “The State of the U.S. Flag Maritime Industry”. During the session, both congressional and maritime industry leaders emphasized the vital importance of the Jones Act to the nation.
The Committee, on a bipartisan basis, as well as those testifying to the Committee stated their support for the law and its enforcement. Virtually all Republican and Democratic members of the Subcommittee strongly support the Jones Act – they also receive industry backing. Duncan D. Hunter (R-CA) represents San Diego County, home to the General Dynamics NASSCO shipbuilding yard. John Garamendi (D-CA) also supports the Jones Act and represents the region between Sacramento and San Francisco in Northern California.
Touting the importance of the Act, Congressman Hunter said, “In order for us to maintain the way of life as we know it as a nation that is secure and is able to project power, be it Navy power or commercial power, the Jones Act is intrinsic to that. It is the cornerstone of all of it.”
It is reported that Duncan finished his remarks by saying, “The absurdities of some of those in this Congress and in government, to think that you want Korean or Chinese or name your country-made ships, and taking the entire American workforce of making ships and driving them, and getting something from point A to point B in America, it’s stupid, it’s absurd, and I hope that we just keep educating and educating, cause that’s what it’s going to take so that people understand what this is and how this is one of the cornerstones of our country’s entire national security apparatus.”
“It is the Jones Act, and it is what allows us to project power and be the greatest country in the world”, he said.
Ranking member Garamendi also vocalized his support: “First and foremost, we cannot become complacent in our defense of the Jones Act and our efforts… to raise public awareness of the need for, and the many benefits that flow, from this long-standing maritime policy that has stood for nearly a century.”
A voice from the military, Admiral Mark H. Buzby, Administrator of the Maritime Ministration (MARAD), gave added perspective on the value of the Jones Act: “[American] mariners are a de facto layer of our national security. If they see something, they will say something. They know what is normal on the waterways,”
Criticism of the Jones Act and turning the narrative around
In the days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico with devastation, the Jones Act came under some criticism. Longtime critics of the Act as well as advocates for the Commonwealth claim that relief efforts to the island were being hampered by the Act’s restrictions on goods shipped between U.S. ports to be transported by U.S. built and operated vessels.
The narrative, however, was turned back by the industry itself and its congressional allies, according to Matt Woodruff, chairman of the American Maritime Partnership.
At the Committee hearing Woodruff stated, “Today, we can say without equivocation that the Jones Act fleet was and continues to be a major part of the recovery effort, which FEMA is calling ‘the largest sea-bridge operation of federal disaster aid in FEMA history.’ I want to personally thank you, other members of this subcommittee, and your excellent staff for helping to address the misinformation and bring America the truth.”
Matthew Paxton, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America urged support of the Jones Act, emphasizing its critical role to sustaining the U.S. shipbuilding industry and its 110,000 workers. He said they are delivering a new generation of Jones Act petroleum tankers, LNG carriers and container ships, but much more is coming out of those yards.
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