SIU President Michael Sacco examines some often-overlooked benefits of the Jones Act
If you spend any time in the U.S.-flag maritime industry, it usually doesn’t take long before the subject of the Jones Act comes up. But for those who may be brand new to the U.S. Merchant Marine, the Jones Act is America’s freight cabotage law. It requires that cargo moving between domestic ports be carried on ships that are crewed, built, flagged and owned American.
Despite its widely recognized benefits to our nation, and even though dozens of other industrialized countries have similar laws, the Jones Act regularly comes under attack. The latest such effort involves a mini-report that accuses the law of being protectionist.
There is no disputing the economic and national security benefits of the Jones Act. A major independent study found that the law helps maintain around 500,000 American jobs while contributing billions of dollars each year to the U.S. economy. Another benefit that shouldn’t be overlooked is that the Jones Act helps maintain a pool of well-trained, reliable, U.S. citizen mariners who are available to sail on American-flag military support ships in times of crisis.
I think we could stop right there and the case for the Jones Act already would be watertight, but this month I also want to mention some mostly unseen, yet essential, additional plusses that directly stem from this law. Namely, border protection, homeland security and the prevention of illegal immigration.
In the SIU, we know that even though our industry often is overlooked, America is a maritime nation. Much of our water is navigable, whether we’re talking about the East and West coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes or the inland waterways. Our rivers go through many major cities and population centers, while the Great Lakes border eight states.
As one industry expert put it, “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… Guarding every potential target along the inland waterways against terrorist attack is an impossible task.”
Fortunately, the Jones Act ensures that vessels traversing these waterways are truly domestic in every way. That means the crews are carefully screened before receiving their credentials, and it means the vessel owners work with the Coast Guard and other federal law enforcement agencies.
That security would go out the window if the Jones Act were weakened or eliminated. It’s true that foreign-flag ships with foreign crews already enter American ports on international voyages, but that’s a lot different than allowing them to have free reign along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
A recent report by the American Maritime Partnership (AMP), a coalition representing organizations from every segment of the domestic maritime industry (the SIU is a member), pointed out that plenty of security challenges already exist just with those international vessels: “Foreign-flag vessels entering U.S. seaports pose a variety of inherent risks to U.S. border security, including the threat of drug trafficking, arms smuggling, illegal immigration, cargo theft, and a variety of other transnational crimes.”
AMP went on to say, “Consider the task of managing and mitigating these formidable risks in a non-Jones Act world, where foreign ships and crews could move freely throughout rivers, coastal areas, and other waterways of America. Imagine foreign ships moving through 25,000 miles of inland waterways, often with no Coast Guard, Customs or other security officers anywhere nearby. Inland vessels move freely along waterways, often tying up to docks, terminals or other points along the river with no security officials anywhere. Imagine the nearly impossible task of federal monitoring of the foreign crewmen on tens of thousands of vessels traveling within our domestic waters. It is no surprise then that when one Senator proposed changes to the Jones Act in early 2015, the commandant of the Coast Guard and a very senior Defense Department official quickly objected.”
The bottom line is that changing or getting rid of the Jones Act would make America far less secure. It would force unmanageable burdens onto an already overloaded homeland security system, and it would critically reduce the ranks of the U.S. Merchant Marine.
Those are some of the reasons the SIU remains 100 percent committed to supporting the Jones Act, which has served America well for nearly a century.