By Paul Doell
In what may have been the most publicly played Jones Act controversy ever, the venerable domestic shipping law was the lead in nationwide news coverage for much of the last week in September. The subject was the Jones Act factor in the official response to the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico - the storm, which hit the U.S. territory as a Cat 5, dumped stunning, unprecedented misery and ruin on the island.
Major news outlets nationwide had picked up quickly on a fraudulent narrative that said the Jones Act was impeding the rescue, recovery and reconstruction effort in Puerto Rico, where most residents remained without electricity, food and clean water, fuel for cars, trucks and generators, medicines and other necessary supplies and equipment on October 1.
This deliberately misleading and demonstrably false assertion was reported routinely as fact and commented upon in riled tones that inspired a narrow Congressional call for a one-year waiver of Jones Act jurisdiction in Puerto Rico - even as TOTE and Crowley Jones Act vessels were on the scene, discharging several thousand containers of relief cargoes in accessible ports.
One example: a September 28 editorial in the tabloid-tough New York Daily News, which asked: "Why on Earth would this notoriously anti-regulation administration refrain from waiving the archaic Jones Act - which only lets U.S.-flagged ships deliver fuel and other products between U.S. ports - for an island that's on its knees?"
But U.S. maritime interests - labor and industry - fought back with a most effective weapon: the plain truth. The problem was not getting ships to Puerto Rico, but getting the aid cargoes where they were needed on an island with little or no remaining infrastructure, power, fuel or communications, with impassible roads and collapsed bridges, and with truck drivers forced to choose between reporting for work and remaining at home to protect their families and what was left of their homes.
American Maritime Officers, the Seafarers International Union, the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association and the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots presented a joint statement in defense of the Jones Act to the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee. Among its many points, this statement noted: "Foreign-flag ships with cargo from ports outside the United States are, and remain, allowed entry to Puerto Rico."
American Maritime Partnership, a Washington-based coalition of Jones Act vessel operators and shipbuilders, circulated a comprehensive paper of such substantial scope that it was covered favorably by many news outlets, and some Jones Act carriers commented separately.
"We are committed to playing a central role in supporting Puerto Rico during this time and ensuring that all Puerto Ricans have access to basic necessities such as clean water and food as the relief and recovery efforts begin," said Tim Nolan, president of TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico. "Our ships have significant capacity, and we want to use our resources to support the island. Just one ship can carry the same amount of goods as nearly 2,000 passenger planes - and we want to make sure every shipment, every ton, every container counts."
Crowley Maritime Corp. Vice President Jose Ayala told reporters Crowley had delivered more than 3,400 commercial containers by barge to San Juan. "These containers are full of food, water, medicine, construction materials," he said, adding that there was no immediate way to "get it on the shelves."
Key lawmakers also rose to the Jones Act's defense.
"Foreign and corporate interests have long opposed the Jones Act and have spread 'fake news' that the law is a hindrance to Puerto Rico's recovery efforts," said House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA). "What is clear ... is that Jones Act vessels can provide the needed capacity to bring aid to Puerto Rico, and they stand willing and able to do so."
Subcommittee Ranking Member John Garamendi (D-CA) said the Jones Act had hastened "a robust relief effort for Puerto Rico." He said containers "full of everything the island needs" were "languishing on the docks ... because there are no trucks to deliver them."
Both Congressmen advised against a Jones Act waiver as pointless and contrary to national interests.
The Trump administration did agree to waive the Jones Act, but only for 10 days, and with what many saw as real reluctance. As of October 1, not a single foreign-flagged cargo ship or service support vessel was in or en route to Puerto Rico with relief cargoes.
Meanwhile, the media uproar had cooled and the focus shifted in support of the Jones Act. In one especially noteworthy development, the influential, independent Breitbart News Network came down on the Jones Act's side, fitting the law snugly into both the President's "Hire American, Buy American" principles and national security strategy.
But the debate spawned here by crass opportunists is far from over. Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Mike Lee of Utah have filed legislation to exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act permanently. Entrenched interests who've devoted careers to Jones Act repeal or amendment are likely to revive their discredited Hurricane Maria mantra in support of the McCain-Lee measure, but with a slightly different spin - the charge that, over the next several months or possibly even years, the Jones Act will make it extremely difficult for the good people of Puerto Rico to rebuild their island and their lives.
There's no real reason to believe that these interests, who exploited a deadly and destructive natural disaster so easily and so shamelessly, will ever go away. They'll never concede that the Jones Act endures on conspicuous merit, serving legitimate U.S. economic and defense interests at no cost to U.S. taxpayers.
We can be confident as the next round develops. But we can't be complacent.
I welcome the comments and questions of AMO members everywhere on this or any other topic. You can reach me on the headquarters office line at 954-921-2221 (ext. 1001), on the toll-free line at 800-362-0513, on my cell at 954-881-5651 or by .