Shipping Regulation Lifted for Puerto Rico: What Is the Jones Act?

In Corozal, Puerto Rico, people wait in line to fill containers with water from a natural spring on the side of the road. (Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty)

Today (Sept. 28), the White House authorized the temporary waiving of a shipping regulation dating to nearly a century ago, known as the Jones Act, to enable much-needed aid to reach Puerto Rico.  

Also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act states that transportation of passengers or cargo between coastal points on U.S. soil — including districts and territories, such as Puerto Rico — is restricted to ships that were built in the United States, are U.S.-owned and fly the American flag, according to the Maritime Law Center. Recently, after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) temporarily waived the statute, enabling more ships to carry fuel to affected areas in Texas and Florida, Bloomberg reported.

But the DHS had declined to waive the Jones Act earlier this week to assist Puerto Rico's recovery from Hurricane Maria, claiming that there were enough American ships to respond to the island's needs, according to The Washington Post. However, the DHS reversed that decision early this morning, temporarily suspending the Jones Act so that "all options" would be available for Puerto Rico relief efforts, DHS representatives said in a statement. [Hurricane Irma Photos: Images of a Monster Storm]

Since Puerto Rico was struck by Hurricane Maria, which touched down on the island as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 20, much of its infrastructure and communications networks has been damaged or destroyed and nearly half of its 3.4 million residents do not have access to clean drinking water, according to a statement released yesterday (Sept. 27) by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Jones Act waiver was issued in response to a direct appeal to the White House from Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted this morning, stating, "It will go into effect immediately."

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But what is the Jones Act, and what led to its enactment nearly 100 years ago?

In 1920, Washington Sen. Wesley L. Jones — after whom the Jones Act was named — outlined legislation to support and maintain an American merchant marine fleet that could compete with other shipping powerhouses around the world. In an article published that year in the journal Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science in the City of New York, Jones outlined a proposal for a fleet of ships that would operate under the supervision of men representing "the most intense Americanism," he wrote.

As described by Jones, his plan opened opportunities for American-owned commercial shipping and transportation vessels by barring foreign ships from carrying people or goods between U.S. coastal ports, and he assured that the ships would be crewed by U.S. citizens.

At the time, this was seen as an opportunity to strengthen national security in addition to providing support for the fledgling American shipping industry, according to a study conducted in 2017 at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, which investigates links between policies and economics.

Helping or harming?

However, critics of the Jones Act have since argued that it may be hampering U.S. businesses by denying them access to a wider range of shipping resources. While the DHS defined laws such as the Jones Act as "highly protectionist provisions" intended to "protect and develop the American merchant marine," this so-called protectionism ultimately ends up working against American consumers, according to study author Thomas Grennes, an emeritus professor of economics at North Carolina State University.

It is also unclear if the Jones Act contributes significantly to national security by restricting foreign shipping, Grennes wrote in the study, noting that "there is no evidence to indicate that Jones Act requirements reduce terrorism in the United States."

Furthermore, the Jones Act's stipulations affect some parts of the United States more than others — particularly regions that are not part of the continental U.S., such as Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii and Alaska, Grennes explained.

In January 2015, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona proposed an amendment to the Jones Act that would give Americans access to the most accessible, affordable shipping options, regardless of where they come from, the Heritage Foundation reported

McCain also tweeted today that since Congress had "finally" moved to suspend the law, members should consider repealing it, "to aid long-term recovery," he wrote.

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The current Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico will last for 10 days, "to ensure we have enough fuel and commodities to support lifesaving efforts, respond to the storm, and restore critical services and critical infrastructure operations in the wake of these devastating storms," Elaine Duke, acting secretary for the DHS, said in a statement.

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.