The White House announced Thursday that it's waiving the Jones Act for Puerto Rico, temporarily freeing the hurricane-stricken island from a 97-year-old regulatory law requiring that ships in U.S. waters carrying goods between U.S. ports be built, owned and crewed by Americans.
"At [Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello's] request, [President Trump] has authorized the Jones Act be waived for Puerto Rico. It will go into effect immediately," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday morning on social media.
Rossello confirmed separately that he lobbied the White House personally to have the statute, which has long been a major financial rag on Puerto Rico, waived for hurricane relief efforts.
"Yesterday night, I petitioned the White House for a temporary waver [sic] of the Jones Act," he announced on Twitter.
The move comes after the administration declined requests earlier this week to lift the Jones Act for Puerto Rico. Department of Homeland Security officials explained at the time that getting goods shipped to the island wasn't a problem. The problem, they claimed, was dispersing goods around the island.
"The fuel supply challenges facing Puerto Rico are not a function of the lack of fuel being shipped to the island, but caused by the devastation to Puerto Rico's transportation networks that have prevented fuel from being transported on the island to all of the places that need it," Department of Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan told the Wall Street Journal.
As noted yesterday: The only open port in the unincorporated U.S. territory is in San Juan, and it's clogged right now with relief aid. Additional deliveries would either be stacked on top of supplies already waiting to be moved out or sit idly in the water until they can be unloaded, according to those leading the rescue efforts. Worse still, authorities say they're running out of room to accept shipments, and they're running out fast.
Customs and Border Protection spokesman Greg Moore told Reuters this week that, "The limitation is going to be port capacity to offload and transit, not vessel availability."
There are roughly 10,000 shipping containers in San Juan filled with relief supplies, including medicine, food, and water, but they're not being moved out due to a combination of diesel fuel shortages, a lack of drivers and infrastructure damage.
But even as these details made it into the news cycle, critics continued to note correctly that the administration waived the Jones Act for Texas, Louisiana and Florida following Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. So why not Puerto Rico?
Administration officials argued this week that they waived the law for mainland states so that fuel could be moved quickly and easily along the East Coast after hurricanes knocked out pipelines. They also explained this week that the post-Hurricane Maria situation in Puerto Rico is a different problem requiring different solutions, and that waiving the Jones Act could actually cause more harm than good as port capacity has become a real issue.
On Thursday, however, the White House reversed course, and agreed that the nearly 100-year-old law should be lifted for Puerto Rico.
It's step in the right direction, but the administration shouldn't stop there: It should kill this law. The Jones Act has been an outrageous financial burden on the people of Puerto Rico. It has been a drag on the U.S. economy. It needs to go, and there's no time like the present.
"Scrapping the century-old legislative relic of the past would generate a broad range of benefits for the U.S. economy and consumers. If foreign vessels were able to ship U.S.-produced oil from Gulf Coast ports to East Coast refineries, it would save U.S. consumers about $1 billion annually," the American Enterprise Institute's Mark J. Perry wrote in June for the Washington Examiner.
"There's no longer any economic reason to keep the anti-competitive and outdated Jones Act," he added.
It's true. There is basically no good economic reason for keeping the law, and there's practically no cost to abolishing it – outside of angering special interest groups, of course.
"Repealing the Jones Act would scale back excessive and unnecessary regulation, give Americans access to cheaper foreign-flag tankers, and allow greater energy production – all without any cost to the U.S. Treasury," Perry added. "Congress should repeal it."
We agree. The U.S. economy, and Puerto Rico in particular, have suffered long enough from this relic of protectionism. Congress needs to bury this law and never speak its name again.