Jones Act

Section 27, Merchant Marine Act, 1920, commonly referred to as the Jones Act, requires cargo moving between U. S. ports be carried in vessels that are U. S.-crewed, -built and -owned. Although the law dates from 1920, legislation to promote a U.S.-flag fleet was among the first ever passed by Congress and foreign-flag vessels have been barred from domestic commerce since 1817.

Nationwide, the fleet engaged in domestic waterborne commerce numbers more than 40,000 vessels of all kinds. While the Lakes Jones Act fleet numbers only 65 or so large vessels, they are real workhorses, moving more than 100 million tons of cargo a year in a strong economy.

The ownership requirement ensures the U. S. maintains control over its domestic fleet. The build requirement supports the shipyards that are needed to build and maintain our Navy and Coast Guard. The crewing requirement means the U. S. has skilled and loyal seafarers to call on to ferry supplies to our troops throughout the globe. During the first Persian Gulf War, some foreign-flag vessels chartered to move supplies to U.S. troops refused to enter the war zone.

The homeland security aspect of the Jones Act cannot be overstated. Former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton, a former Washington State attorney general and member of the 911 Commission, recently wrote that “helping to plug a porous border is a benefit of the Jones Act that is far too often overlooked.”

Dr. Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute, a prominent think tank, has prepared two studies recently, including one titled, Venerable Jones Act Provides an Important Barrier to Terrorist Infiltration of the Homeland. He said, “Since 911, the Jones Act has taken on new significance in a way no one … could have imagined. It now plays an important role in securing the homeland from the threat of international terrorism.”

Because the Jones Act requires all participants in domestic waterborne commerce to follow the same rules, regulations and laws, the level playing field promotes competition (contracts are won or lost for cents per ton), and on the Great Lakes, has produced the world's largest fleet of self-unloading vessels. The Lakes Jones Act fleet is so efficient a vessel can move a ton of cargo more than 800 miles for about roughly the cost of lunch at a moderately priced restaurant.

Every Administration since 1920 has supported the Jones Act. The Navy considers the law indispensible. It's very simple, without the Jones Act, America would be less secure.

The environment benefits too. Jones Act vessels are held to the world's highest environmental, safety, and operational standards. They are inspected annually by the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S.-flag lakers are required to be drydocked every five years for an out-of-water inspection of the hull.

The Jones Act applies to the U.S. territories of Guam and Puerto Rico as well as the 50 states. After hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, Jones Act carriers rushed to deliver much-need supplies to the island, but Puerto Rico’s ravaged landside infrastructure made moving the goods inland difficult, often impossible. Jones Act critics used Puerto Ricans’ misfortune to criticize the law, claiming it impeded recovery, but the truth is the Jones Act has facilitated the delivery of cargo, and when the roads are repaired and electricity restored, there will be no shortage of cargo that moves by water.

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