Study: Jones Act Vital for America


August 2016


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A new report by the Lexington Institute underscore’s the law’s value to national defense


The Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank, recently released a study stressing the critical role that the American maritime industry and the Jones Act play in strengthening U.S. border security and helping to prevent international terrorism.


Despite the current discussion of border security generally being limited to America’s southern land border, the study offered a reminder of the big picture: “The current debate of enhancing U.S. border security has focused almost exclusively on illegal movement of people and drugs into the southern United States from Mexico,” it stated. “Yet, the southern land border is actually the smallest at 1,989 miles. The U.S. border with Canada is almost three times longer at 5,525 miles. But all this country’s land borders taken together are dwarfed by the 95,000 miles of national shoreline. This includes the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts as well as the Great Lakes separating the United States from Canada.”


While protecting the coastline is a daunting task, those ports are only part of the picture, as the study explained: “Moreover, the United States is a nation of rivers as well as the world’s preeminent maritime power. For example, a ship entering the homeland through a coastal port such as New Orleans will have access to the deep interior. The inland waterways of the United States encompass over 25,000 miles of navigable waters, including the Intracoastal Waterway, a 3,000-mile highway that traverses the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. This liquid highway touches most of America’s major Eastern and Gulf Coast cities including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans and Mobile. Inland and intracoastal waterways directly serve 38 states from the nation’s heartland to the Atlantic seaboard, Gulf Coast and Pacific Northwest.”


The study highlights the “impossible task” of guarding the U.S. against threats from foreign ships and foreign crews operating in the heartland of the U.S. “The prospect of terrorists on the inland waterways system is a particularly daunting challenge to homeland security. Via the inland waterways, a terrorist could reach America’s heartland and many of its largest and most important urban centers. [These waterways] carry an enormous weight of the nation’s internal commerce.... Guarding every potential target along the inland waterways against terrorist attack is an impossible task,” the study noted.


Continuing on that point, the reported cited examples of increased security measures that have helped guard America’s ports and waterways: “The protection of the nation’s maritime transportation system is governed largely by the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) and the Security and Accountability for Every (SAFE) Port Act of 2006. The MTSA and SAFE Port acts address not only standards for the physical security of the nation’s ports and maritime facilities and the proper documentation of all vessels, cargoes and people arriving at a U.S. port, but also identity security for those who have access to maritime infrastructure or domestic vessels. SAFE Port instituted the Transportation Worker Identity Credential (TWIC) for the purpose of vetting maritime workers and replacing the hundreds of identity cards then in use with a single, recognizable and tamper-resistant credential.”


While there are a multitude of security measures designed to keep foreign-flag ships under close watch, Jones Act vessels are free from the most cumbersome of these regulations (though U.S. ships, crews and shipowners are held to higher standards in other categories, some related to security). According to the report, “While there are federal and state laws and regulations governing the operation of ships involved in cabotage, they are far less demanding than those in place to prevent threats or contraband from entering this country’s ports from overseas.”


The less-burdensome laws followed by Jones Act vessels and operators save the government – and the taxpayers – from the additional costs of monitoring every vessel navigating America’s waterways with the same scrutiny as those coming from foreign nations. The report found that, “The requirement to treat vessels conducting cabotage as if they were potential sources of threats to the homeland on the same order as foreign vessels entering U.S. ports would also necessitate much more extensive intelligence and surveillance on their activities. Extending the same data management and tracking requirements for foreign vessels and crews to those operating in U.S. waters would require an enormous investment of both resources and personnel by DHS components. Given the essentially flat budgets under which DHS has operated for the past several years, the necessary expenditures would only come at the expense of the effort to monitor foreign threats seeking to enter the country. It is for this reason that the higher standards with respect to ownership and manning requirements for Jones Act ships are so significant.”


That point was echoed later in the report: “Were the Jones Act not in existence, the Department of Homeland Security would be confronted by the difficult and costly requirement of monitoring, regulating, and overseeing foreign-controlled, foreign-crewed vessels in coastal and internal U.S. waters.” In addition, the study reinforces the importance of skilled American mariners to protect the U.S. marine transportation system, which encompasses 361 ports, over 3,000 facilities and more than 14,000 regulated domestic vessels.


“The requirement that all the officers and fully 75 percent of the crews of vessels engaged in cabotage be U.S. citizens goes a long way to reducing the risk that terrorists could get onboard or execute an attack on a U.S. target,” the study said. “It is particularly important that those vessels and crews which routinely travel between U.S. ports and especially the inland waterways through America’s heartland pose no threat to the homeland.”


The study concluded, “Today, the Jones Act remains critical to the maintenance of a U.S. shipbuilding and repair industry and associated skilled workforce to support the Navy.”



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