The Jones Act and Hurricane Maria: how this century-old law is affecting recovery efforts

by | Oct 10, 2017 | Federal Government | Comments

People and government officials from Puerto Rico appreciated President Donald Trump’s decision of temporary waiving the Merchant Marine Act or Jones Act of 1920 on September 28, after a long hesitation. This waiver of the Jones Act helped fasten the relief activities from the damage caused by Hurricane Maria.

How was this century old law affecting the relief activities?

The law was intended to form a secure network of trade seafarers within the US in post-World War I era, as most of the US fleet was demolished by the German fleet. This act entails all merchandises transported between US ports to be carried by US containers. This act was a step to support the fragile shipping industry of the US. This century-old law has been amended several times, most recently in 2006.

Besides providing national security, this law had the inadvertent effects of making it twice as pricey to transport goods from the US mainland to Puerto Rico. According to a study of University of Puerto Rico, islands lost $537 million per year as an outcome of the Jones Act. Puerto Rican traders and customers get affected from the effects of the Jones Act every day. And the same goes for Hawaii, and to some degree in Alaska. But it goes unnoticed on the US mainland.

Shane Skelton who is a policy advisor for the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure, a think tank that promotes economic efficiency said that,

“The Puerto Rican economy is fragile. Even if the Jones Act is adding an extra 10 or 20 cents on everything you use, you’re talking about thousands of dollars a year for an economy that can’t afford it,” “unfortunately it really only comes to light when we have a catastrophe,” he added, “We should look at the impact of this year round.”

On September 28 the Trump government approved a 10-day waiver to make it easier to transport relief goods to the islands. However, it’s not clear how much the waiver helped during the current crisis, since the ports are already blocked with goods that can’t be distributed to people in need due to logistical problems on the islands.

The waiver expired on October 7 but there is likely a fight to begin in Congress about the Jones Act. Senator John McCain (R), who has recently been vocal in his opposition of the Jones Act, called for a permanent repeal of the law, calling it “an antiquated, protectionist law that has driven up costs and crippled Puerto Rico’s economy.”

“It is 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,” he added. “Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome act.”

Eight Democratic members of Congress, including Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D) of New York and Luis Gutiérrez (D) of Illinois, have also spoken out, calling for a one-year suspension of the law to speed Puerto Rico’s recovery.