In recent months as the U.S. maritime industry and U.S. Merchant Marine have continued to deliver to meet the needs of American commerce, national defense and national security throughout the response to the global coronavirus pandemic - and as the Jones Act marked its centennial in June - congressional and military leaders have spoken out and written in support of the vital roles served by the U.S.-flag fleet and sustaining and enhancing the laws and programs that sustain the U.S. maritime industry in every trade, particularly during a period of severe economic downturn such as the nation is currently experiencing.
In letters to the chairmen and ranking members of a total of six committees and subcommittees in the Senate and House of Representatives dated May 15, the Commander of U.S. Transportation Command, Gen. Stephen Lyons (U.S. Army), requested enhanced support for U.S.-flagged vessels enrolled in the Maritime Security Program and Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement, as well as expansion of U.S. cargo preference requirements pertaining to government-impelled cargoes, to support the service of U.S.-flagged commercial vessels and American mariners tasked with providing sealift support for military operations and sustained deployments.
"The U.S. flagged sealift industry is vital to National Defense as it enables the Department of Defense (DOD) to deploy and sustain forces on U.S. vessels crewed by U.S. merchant mariners. The Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA) and Maritime Security Program (MSP) provide a fleet of active, commercially viable, militarily useful, privately owned vessels crewed by U.S. merchant mariners to meet National Defense requirements," Gen. Lyons wrote.
"Given the economic downturn as a result of COVID-19, I urge you to favorably consider the relief requests from VISA and MSP carriers" to prevent vessels from laying up due to decreased demand for transportation of commercial cargo, as well as military cargo, he wrote. "Placing vessels in no-use status decreases their availability, significantly degrading America's power projection and sustainment capability in peacetime and wartime."
In addition to requesting consideration of a waiver of the 320-day 'in commerce' rule to allow vessels to maintain their MSP status and stipends during "this unique period of reduced demand," Gen. Lyons also asked congressional leaders to "require 100 percent of all government-impelled cargoes to be transported on U.S. flagged vessels."
In a letter to the speaker and minority leader of the House of Representatives and to the majority and minority leaders of the Senate dated April 27, Congresswoman Elaine Luria (D-VA) urged similar consideration for the MSP fleet and cargo preference requirements as Congress continued to work on relief legislation related to the COVID-19 crisis.
The MSP "fleet is ready to meet national defense needs and supports a global transportation network," Rep. Luria wrote. "These vessels are incentivized to participate through a stipend but must satisfy certain requirements. Due to the global trade disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, some ships in this fleet may fail to meet the operating days requirement to receive the stipend. It would be prudent to reduce the operating days requirement so vessels can continue to be eligible for the MSP stipend and contribute to our national security readiness."
Rep. Luria continued: "As businesses across our nation are facing hardship, the federal government should take advantage of all opportunities to support American businesses and workers. To support MSP participants, all government generated cargoes should have 100 percent U.S.-flag cargo preference. I also urge you to reject any waivers of the Jones Act for the duration of this pandemic. The crews of U.S.-flagged vessels support our nation in our times of need, and we must do the same to ensure these critical national security assets remain ready and in business after this crisis ends."
During an interview for the American Maritime Podcast in May, Congressman John Rutherford (R-FL) addressed the importance of the Jones Act's role in maintaining U.S. domestic shipbuilding and shipping capabilities and capacity, particularly in a time of national and global crisis.
"I believe it's a national security issue of the utmost importance and I think that has been driven home by this pandemic," Rep. Rutherford said.
"Without a strong domestic maritime industry, the U.S. would be forced to rely on countries like China ... to sell us vessels, ship military supplies and transport fuel and goods between U.S. ports, like the strong supply chain between Jacksonville, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico," he said. "We must not overlook the importance of protecting the supply chains by relinquishing control to foreign entities to build our vessels and transport our goods. We would essentially auction our national security for the lowest bidder."
During an interview for the podcast in June, Congressman John Garamendi also spoke in support of the Jones Act.
"I think we really need to understand the critical importance of the U.S. Merchant Marine and the Jones Act," Rep. Garamendi said. "We see this principally in the history, we certainly see it in World War II - we'll come back to that in a few moments - but we also know that, in the more current world in which we live, the American Merchant Marine system is absolutely essential.
"First of all, it's a very, very big jobs issue in the United States - not just the ships that are on the blue water, out in the ocean, but also those that are up and down the rivers of the United States," he said. "We're talking about tens of thousands of jobs, not only on those barges and ships, but also in the shipyards that are building and maintaining them. The Jones Act is absolutely crucial."