Trump considers shipping waiver for Puerto Rico aid

Trump considers shipping waiver for Puerto Rico aid
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President Trump on Wednesday said he is considering waiving U.S. shipping restrictions under the Jones Act to help disaster aid reach Puerto Rico.

The administration faced a backlash earlier this week for suggesting that an exemption from the shipping rules is not needed for Puerto Rico, where officials estimate parts of the island could be without power for up to six months in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Several lawmakers have been pushing for a yearlong waiver from the rule, which they say would help deliver gasoline and other supplies more quickly and cheaply to the battered island.

But the issue runs counter to Trump’s “America First” instincts.

The Jones Act, which was created in 1920 to strengthen the commercial U.S. shipping industry after World War I, requires that cargo shipments between U.S. ports only take place on American-made, -owned and -operated vessels.

The nearly century-old law enjoys strong support from the maritime and shipping industry.

“We have a lot of shippers, a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “And we have a lot of ships out there right now.”

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can waive the rule, which it has done in the past for natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

The Trump administration earlier this month issued a weeklong waiver, requested by the Department of Defense (DOD) and extended by another week, to allow fuel shipments to Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

But the DOD has not yet issued a similar request for Puerto Rico, which is facing widespread medical, food and water shortages.

Several Democratic members of Congress, led by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), have requested a yearlong Jones Act exemption for Puerto Rico. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainPence, Pompeo urged Trump to clarify Russia remarks: report GOP lawmaker renews call for Trump to release tax returns after Putin summit House conservatives criticize media, not Trump, for Putin furor MORE (R-Ariz.) has also long called for a full repeal of the law.

The lawmakers argue that the outdated shipping restrictions are hindering recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

Right now, a foreign ship that wants to take relief goods to the island would have to either pay hefty tariffs if it lands there or reload its cargo onto a U.S.-flagged ship on the mainland — two options that critics say jack up costs and slow down shipments.

Lawmakers say that the waiver would allow cheaper and more readily available foreign vessels to supply goods to the island.

“First aid and other goods need to get to the island as quickly as possible. This is strangling,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) told The Hill. “There are other countries that want to help and are currently unable to do so.”

DHS officials, however, have maintained that a waiver might not be necessary for Puerto Rico. They say there are enough U.S. ships available to assist with recovery efforts.

They also say the move would do little to help the U.S. territory, where damaged ports are preventing ships from docking and ripped-up roads are preventing goods from being transported around the island.

But following an outcry for not issuing an exemption, the DHS said Wednesday that it was considering granting a waiver, though the agency did not indicate when a decision would be made.

Under the shipping law, the DHS can only issue waivers if it’s in the interest of national security and if the Department of Transportation determines that there aren’t enough U.S. vessels to deliver cargo. The agency would not need to consider the latter standard, however, if the request came directly from the DOD.

“As based upon our current conversations, there is not a lack of vessels to move the goods that we need to support the humanitarian relief efforts,” a senior DHS official told reporters Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the shipping industry — a fierce supporter of the Jones Act — says that U.S. companies and workers should be at the forefront of the relief effort.

Domestic maritime companies have already delivered 9,500 containers of fuel, first aid supplies, building materials and other goods to the island, according to the American Maritime Partnership.

“A steady stream of additional supplies keeps arriving in Puerto Rico on American vessels and on international ships from around the world,” said Thomas Allegretti, chairman of the American Maritime Partnership. “The problem now is distributing supplies from Puerto Rico’s ports inland by surface transportation.”

There could also be more reluctance from the administration to grant the waiver to Puerto Rico because it’s a yearlong request, as opposed to a few weeks.

But if the White House decides not to grant the exemption, it could fuel criticism that Trump cares more about U.S. citizens on the mainland than those in Puerto Rico.

“Maybe Puerto Rico is not a priority to him, but it should be, because this has all the makings to be a modern-day Katrina,” Espaillat said.