Three members of the U.S. House of Representatives spoke Oct. 19 at the Maritime Trades Department (MTD) convention in St. Louis, and each pledged to continue standing up for the Jones Act.
But those representatives also put some of the onus on delegates and guests to reach out to other elected legislators with educational messages supporting America’s freight cabotage law.
Addressing the MTD were U.S. Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), John Shimkus (R-Illinois), and Mike Bost (R-Illinois). They spoke in the midst of a misinformation campaign against the Jones Act, particularly as the law applies to Puerto Rico.
Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said that while many fellow representatives understand the extremely high value of the American maritime industry, turnover on Capitol Hill – combined with anti-maritime messages aimed both at legislators and the general public – calls for vigilance.
He said that during a recent trip to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, he saw firsthand that Jones Act vessels had delivered plenty of relief cargoes, but the island’s damaged infrastructure was severely slowing movement ashore.
“The problem is not the Jones Act,” Thompson stated, “it’s what happens when cargo gets to the port. It doesn’t get to the people.”
He continued, “I want you to help us stop Washington from attacking the Jones Act. We have to make sure that people understand what it’s about. It’s a jobs program. It’s a program that’s been around for a long time and helps workers, but it also helps the (ship) owners and operators. It’s about business. And so why in the world would we do anything to something that’s working? Washington has a terrible reputation for fixing things that aren’t broken.”
Thompson added that many unions have stepped up for relief efforts in the territory.
“The house of labor has been very well-represented there, doing good jobs,” he said. “I saw nurses, I saw Teamsters, I saw a lot of other folks out there – Seafarers – doing a good job.”
He then reiterated the need for grassroots outreach in support of the U.S. maritime industry.
“If you don’t talk to us (Congress), your opposition – the folks who want to do away with the Jones Act – they’re going to talk. They’re going to come in and convince people that the only reason the economy is slowing down is because of that Jones Act. Oh, they’re going to make it sound good. The only way you can counter that is with your message, and you’ve got the best message in the world.”
Shimkus, a retired U.S. Army officer, said the Jones Act’s benefits on America’s rivers also must not be overlooked.
“The untold story of the Jones Act is its inland waterway transportation system, and we want trusted users whom we know operating (there),” he said. “Can you imagine taking a foreign-flag barge system into a major metropolitan area, underneath a bridge?”
He also recalled participating in military exercises overseas that honed America’s ability to project its forces.
“There’s only one way we do that,” he said. “We do that through what you all do, and the vessels you have.”
Shimkus said attacks against the Jones Act related to Puerto Rico underscore the need “to retell the story” of how America relies on its domestic maritime industry.
He also voiced support for the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which has been a good generator of cargoes for American-flag ships in addition to delivering money to the U.S. Treasury.
Rep. Bost also is a military veteran, having served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and comes from a union family. He said he sees bipartisan support in the nation’s capital for organized labor and for creating and keeping good jobs in the U.S.
Turning to the Jones Act, Bost said, “It should be very, very clear to each member in Congress why it’s in place and why it should be maintained – not just for the labor side, but for security as well.”
Bost pointed out that his district is the only one in the country “that has three navigable waterways. It’s got the Kaskaskia, Ohio, and the Mississippi rivers. And as we move forward trying to do the tax reform that we’re talking about, the springboard from that will be the revenues that try to put in place also for the infrastructure we have to have. We have to make sure that the Army Corps of Engineers, that we have enough money for that infrastructure that we can actually stop the bottleneck in the Mississippi to the north, and actually increase the size of our locks and dams in the north, but we’ve still got to maintain our locks and dams throughout this nation.”
He also encouraged attendees to speak up for investment in U.S. infrastructure.
“We need to be talking to everybody on the street and telling them how important this is,” Bost stated. “We have to look for unique funding streams, and not just for our waterways, but also for highways, bridges, and just the sheer amount of jobs….”