Strong bipartisan support for the nation’s freight cabotage law is continuing in the face of misguided attempts to weaken or repeal the critical statute.
Legislators from both sides of the aisle, the head of a major industrial coalition, and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao all recently spoke in favor of the Jones Act. The law helps sustain nearly 650,000 American jobs and is vital for national, economic and homeland security.
During a budget hearing in early April, Chao was asked about the Jones Act and whether it hampered hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. The secretary noted that damaged infrastructure – not a scarcity of cargo – was the problem.
“Periodically, the Jones Act is blamed and criticized and there are attempts to get rid of it,” Chao stated. “I’ve been in government service now for such a long time, it comes up, and this has come up, for example, in Puerto Rico. But, the problem with distribution of cargoes is not the problem of – due to the Jones Act, the vessels or the cost. Rather, it was due to the lack of warehouses and the devastation of the roads so that once the cargoes were unloaded in Puerto Rico, they could not be distributed.”
She was speaking to U.S. Rep. John Rutherford (R-Florida), another ardent Jones Act supporter who weeks later published an op-ed in The Hill. Therein, he wrote in part, “This pillar of maritime policy is to credit for successfully protecting our maritime economy and our national security for nearly a century…. While the American maritime industry supports many high-paying, skilled-labor jobs, not every country offers the same opportunities to its workers. For example, China exploits labor to build vessels at a fraction of the American cost. If we allow these vessels to sail between U.S. ports, our domestic maritime industry would have the impossible task of competing with China’s cheap labor and subsidized manufacturing. Removing the market certainty that the Jones Act provides would decimate the American maritime industry, putting our national security in jeopardy.”
Rutherford continued, “Without a strong domestic maritime industry, the U.S. would be forced to rely on countries like China to sell us vessels, ship military supplies, and transport fuel and goods between U.S. ports – like the strong supply chain between Jacksonville, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. We must not overlook the importance of protecting these supply chains. By relinquishing control to foreign entities to build our vessels and transport our goods, we essentially auction our national security to the lowest bidder.”
Around that same time in late April, maritime stalwart U.S. Rep. John Garamendi (D-California) posted an op-ed on the MarineLink website. Like Rutherford, Garamendi was responding to published reports indicating the White House was strongly considering a Jones Act waiver. Garamendi wrote, “I served as the top Democrat on the House Subcommittee of Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation for six years. Through that experience I gained a firsthand understanding of how vital the Jones Act is for our nation. Repealing it would prioritize foreign shipping interests over American workers while undermining America’s national security and economic development.
“The Jones Act is the lifeblood for a U.S. maritime trade that supports 650,000 jobs and almost [$150] billion in annual economic impact,” he continued. “If the Jones Act did not exist, the U.S. maritime industry would be sharply undercut by foreign shippers with lower labor protections, environmental requirements, and safety standards. Not only would we outsource marine transportation along our coasts and inland waterways to the cheapest foreign bidder, we would also hollow out a key component of American industrial might and eliminate jobs in American shipyards, which employ 110,000 people in 26 states.”
Garamendi also described the law as “essential for our national security and our war fighting capacity. Our military relies on privately owned sealift capacity and highly trained merchant mariners to transport and sustain our armed forces during times of conflict.”
Moreover, Michael P. Balzano, executive director of the National Industrial Base Workforce Coalition, in early May penned a piece for the Washington Examiner that pointed out President Ronald Reagan’s support of the Jones Act. During Reagan’s 1980 campaign, Balzano served as his liaison with many unions.
Balzano said Reagan “supported the Jones Act because he knew the national security consequences of losing the rest of the maritime fleet. In Reagan’s day, the Chinese did not have a merchant fleet or a navy. But now the Chinese carrying their own merchandised trade on their ships. They now have over 3,000 merchant vessels, all capable of carrying troops and military cargo, and a navy that includes aircraft carriers and submarines along with missiles that they claim can take out any of our warships.
“The Chinese have converted atolls in the Philippine sea into mini aircraft landing strips and warned the U.S. to stay out of their newly claimed territorial waters,” he continued. “They are also building ports around the globe, increasing their ability to move throughout the oceans with impunity. Yet the number of U.S. merchant ships has fallen from the 500 that Reagan saw as a crisis to fewer than 100 ships today.”
He concluded, “History tells us that wars are won or lost by a nation’s ability to put its boots on the ground. American boots in both World Wars were delivered by American ships…. Without a vibrant maritime industry, America will not be a global sea power in the 21st century. The loss of this industry will have consequences.”