Sustaining Jones Act a Necessity
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Sustaining Jones Act a Necessity

Sustaining Jones Act a Necessity

If you peruse news outlets and the internet you may notice a growing number of articles and blog posts denouncing the Jones Act, concluding that it causes high gasoline prices.  Senator John McCain (R-AZ) even recently introduced legislative amendments that would repeal the Jones Act within 90 days if adopted.  Fortunately the amendments were defeated before they had a chance to gain traction.  Wondering what the Jones Act is and why it matters?  More on that in a moment.

It seems someone is always positing absurd Jones Act theories.  Remember the Macondo well blowout?  You may know it as the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico where hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil were released as the result of an oil well failure.  Almost immediately after the accident Senator McCain appeared on all the major news networks claiming the Jones Act was responsible for hindering cleanup efforts.  The statement was so patently false that as McCain repeated it on what seemed to be an endless loop, the entire maritime industry stood, mouths agape in wonderment, figuring the old guy had finally lost his marbles.  One wonders if McCain or his staffers have ever read the law.

Known formally as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act ensures that goods transported between U.S. ports are carried aboard U.S. flag merchant vessels.  The legislation is critical to maintaining the American flag fleet of merchant ships.  This is a good thing from a national security standpoint because it means the U.S. government will have a ready supply of tonnage available for transporting military cargo when the need arises.  Numerous instances have occurred where the U.S. government paid foreign-registered vessels to transport militarily necessary cargo to war theaters and the vessels refused to enter the destination port at the most critical moments, whether out of fear or because of conflicting national interest.  Having that same cargo carried aboard U.S. flag merchant vessels manned by American crews guarantees that such a mission failure will never occur.

Why is it important the Jones Act be sustained?  American crews cannot be trained and assembled overnight.  Training, particularly for licensed officers in the U.S., is becoming increasingly onerous.  An officer typically attends a four-year university, earning a Bachelor degree while also satisfying the requirements of the USCG licensing regime.  After graduation the officer must regularly sail aboard vessels to enhance the skills learned in school and advance license grade.

And ships cannot be constructed in a day.  Another section of the Jones Act requires that U.S. flag vessels used in U.S. trade be constructed in U.S. shipyards.   Canada has a similar law on the books that is very effective.  While Canadian legislators embrace the law, American Jones Act opponents complain about labor costs related to new ship construction.  Studies do in fact show that ship construction in the U.S. is more expensive than, say, China, where slave labor is employed.  As a nation we ought to relish our commitment to a shipbuilding industry that creates jobs and maintains the skilled workforce necessary to fabricate large vessels.  The Jones Act opponents who say that U.S. flag ships should not be built in America are too quick to sell out American innovation and ingenuity.  It is appalling that any American legislator would support this position.

Ship construction is a trade that requires particular knowledge and experience.  So long as ships are being built in U.S. yards, we are assured that the U.S. still maintains the knowledge base to continue this activity.  Stop building ships in the U.S. and in less than ten years all the skilled individuals who know the secrets of ship construction will be gone from the industry.  Retraining this skilled workforce will cost multiples more than any expense associated with sustaining the Jones Act.

Beyond the obvious technical benefits of the Jones Act, there is a more subtle outcome frequently overlooked.  At the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London, U.K., the United States holds a seat as a member state.  This seat ensures U.S. influence in the development of international policy.  As the U.S. delegation weighs in on maritime matters at IMO today, its opinion holds sway in no small part due to strong U.S. participation in maritime industry in the form of vessel operation and shipbuiliding.  The U.S. has consistently been known to have the best trained mariners in the world.  To eliminate or weaken the Jones Act would mean the supply of qualified American mariners would diminish, thereby diminishing the perception of the U.S. in the maritime realm and, as a result, its influence on global maritime policy.  It would be difficult for the IMO or any of its member states to take the recommendations of the U.S. seriously.  As part of an international body that governs by consensus, it is vital that the U.S. maintain an influential role lest our national interests be circumvented.

Jones Act opponents like Senator McCain should give serious thought to the ideas they propose in legislation and media.  The harm inflicted on the U.S. maritime workforce and the U.S. reputation within the global maritime community, were the Jones Act repealed, would be irreparable.

  • Jeffrey Wallin

    April 10, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    I agree with your argument except for one thing. The act does indeed require ships between
    US ports to be built here at extremely high union wages. But to imply that without it our ships would all
    built in China (a possible implication of inferior goods like the old canard about cheap Japanese
    cameras of the 50s?), ignores a few other shipbuilding countries in the West. I’m willing to agree that
    true (not trumped up) national security issues ought to trump all others. But just how much do we have
    to be gouged to insure this? The Ronald Reagan Building in DC cost us over four times projected costs, in spite of its namesake. How much extra does it cost to build a ship here than it would elsewhere (under rules insuring quality of build? Also, if ships could be built here at skilled but not union labor, might not the problem of maintaining a healthy ship building industry here in the US not have arisen in the first place? (BTW, I’m a former member of the ILU, not an unmitigated union basher). Thanks for the good piece, which I did enjoy.

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