Getting life-saving aid to Puerto Rico is enormously complicated, and the restoration of roads and infrastructure will take months, perhaps years. Every possible method of providing basic services should be undertaken.
The situation in the United States territory is not completely unlike the conditions facing hundreds of thousands of British troops in Dunkirk.
The British army was stranded on the beaches of France during World War II and there appeared to be no way to transport the soldiers back home. Winston Churchill's government put out the call, and thousands of civilians with boats of every shape and size took to the waves to rescue the troops. At that critical juncture, the survival of thousands took precedence over petty administrative or regulatory demands. Owners of yachts, motor boats, lifeboats, paddle steamers, and barges volunteered for the rescue; the smallest of the vessels was a 14-foot open fishing boat.
When President Trump waived the Jones Act on Sept. 28 to help get recovery aid to Puerto Rico, he not only took a crucial step to bring every possible method of assistance to the devastated island, he also brought attention to one of the nation's most archaic and harmful laws.
Officially called the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act stipulates that all vessels operating in U.S. waters be American-built, American-flagged, and 75 percent American-crewed. The act was waived for a short period in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma; it was also waived following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Other than whether to waive the Jones Act during national emergencies, interest in the act tends to recede into obscurity in the weeks, months, and years between disasters. But the 97-year-old law's negative impact on the economy doesn't recede with the flood waters -- it continues to harm competitiveness and impose huge costs on the economy.
American-built, operated, and crewed vessels have higher operating and maintenance compared to foreign ones. A 2011 Department of Transportation Maritime Administration Report observed:
Carriers noted that the U.S.-flag fleet experiences higher operating costs than foreign-flag vessels due to regulatory requirements on vessel labor, insurance and liability costs, maintenance and repair costs, taxes and costs associated with compliance with environmental law… [T]he operating cost differential between U.S.-flag vessels and foreign flag vessels has increased over the past five years, further reducing the capacity of the U.S.-flag fleet to compete with foreign-flag vessels for commercial cargo…
Ironically, Puerto Rico may be one of the Jones Act's biggest victims, even during non-emergency conditions. According to a 2012 report by two Puerto Rican economists, the island's economy took a $537 million hit in 2010 as a result of increased costs associated with the law.
A June 2012 Federal Reserve Bank of New York report on the competitiveness of the Puerto Rican economy found that:
Experts on the Island have varying views on the magnitude of the [Jones] act's effect, but most agree that the net effect is negative—largely because the act boosts the cost of imported goods to Island residents but also because it makes exports less competitive and diminishes the viability of the Island as a major regional trans-shipment port. … Available data show that shipping is more costly to Puerto Rico than to regional peers and that Puerto Rican ports have lagged other regional ports in activity in recent years.
On Thursday, just before Trump waived the Jones Act, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has long called for the law's repeal, once again slammed it as "archaic and burdensome." He said it was "unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster."
If waiving the Jones Act can speed recovery and significantly lower the costs of recovery for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of these tragic hurricanes, logic dictates that its complete repeal would yield similar results for the long-troubled local economy going forward. Trump, perhaps more than any recent president, has made restoring American competitiveness a central focus of his administration. It was the winning message of his entire campaign.
He should not just temporarily waive the Jones Act, he should call for its permanent repeal.
Leslie Paige is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is vice president for policy and communications at Citizens Against Government Waste.
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