The Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act, is a law that was passed in 1920 to protect and maintain maritime and shipping interests in the U.S. One of the most important rules that is a part of the law is that only U.S.-flagged ships can move cargo from one U.S. port to another, and that those ships have crews that are at least three-quarters American. Critics of the law who want to see it repealed say that these restrictions are outdated and are interfering with economic growth.
Explaining the Jones Act
The Jones Act was established after World War I as a way to establish and maintain a fleet of ships and merchant mariners. It was a reaction to the major losses the U.S. Navy suffered during the war. The rule that states only U.S. ships can transport goods between U.S. ports with mostly American crews, has helped to develop and maintain the merchant marine fleet that could be tapped during war time if needed. This part of the law was intended to bolster the maritime industry.
The law has been changed over the years and another important part of it is the protection it provides to maritime workers. The Jones Act forces the industry to be responsible for protecting its workers, by allowing for crew members to be compensated if injured due to negligence on the job. Employers have to create and maintain safe workplaces on ships and in ports to protect workers. Furthermore the Jones Act requires that ships and maritime employers comply with environmental regulations.
Waiving the Jones Act
The Jones Act has been in the news recently because of destructive hurricanes like Harvey and Maria. The president waived the law temporarily in the wake of these disasters. After hurricane Harvey struck Houston, waiving the law allowed foreign-flagged ships to move oil and other petroleum products between the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. ports while Houston’s industry recovered. Waiving the law after Maria was supposed to help get supplies to Puerto Rico more quickly to aid in recovery from that disaster.
Repealing the Jones Act
While the waivers are temporary, some people are calling for a complete repeal of the Jones Act, including Senator John McCain. He claimed that the law is antiquated and protectionist and that it can be blamed for the high prices of goods that have damaged the Puerto Rican economy, even before the hurricane disaster.
Other critics of the law cite the damage it does to the U.S. oil companies, and consequently the U.S. economy. In some cases it is cheaper to import petroleum products from international locations than to move it from a U.S. port like Houston to another U.S. port. Critics say that the law is stifling the U.S. petroleum industry and therefore the economy of the entire country. Consumers pay more for all kinds of products because of the restrictions of the Jones Act.
Not everyone agrees that the Jones Act is outdated. Many believe it is still an important way to maintain the merchant marine fleet. And few would argue that it is helpful for sailors and other maritime workers who otherwise might face worse working conditions and have fewer avenues for compensation when injured. Whether or not the law will be repealed or altered remains to be seen.