In 1791, our nation’s first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, founded the Revenue Cutter Service. This entity, which would later become today’s United States Coast Guard, ensured that proper import duties were paid on goods arriving to the United States by sea—a key source of financial support for our fledgling nation. But Hamilton wasn’t just concerned with international trade: he also understood the value of American shipbuilding, and he required that the cutters be built from American-made materials. Why? To strengthen America’s shipbuilding and domestic manufacturing sectors, which were crucial to our country’s national security and economic development.
Two hundred twenty seven years later, they still are—and that is why our nation needs the Jones Act now more than ever. The Jones Act is a simple law: it requires that shipping between two U.S. ports occur on ships that are built in the United States, fly the U.S. flag, and are operated by crews consisting of at least 75 percent American citizens. This requirement buttresses a domestic maritime trade that supports nearly half a million jobs and almost $100 billion in annual economic impact. If the Jones Act did not exist, this 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 also would hollow out a key component of American industrial might.
But the Jones Act is not just essential for our economy—it remains essential for our national security and our war fighting capacity. Our military relies on privately-owned sealift capacity and highly trained and credentialed merchant mariners to transport and sustain our armed forces when deployed overseas during times of conflict. But the number of ocean-going U.S.-flag vessels has dropped from 249 in the 1980s, to 106 in 2012, to at most 81 today.
The consequences of this steep decline are not just theoretical. Our military has had to turn to foreign-flagged vessels for sustainment in times of war, and experience shows that can have dangerous consequences. In the 1991 Gulf War, our armed forces relied on 192 foreign-flagged ships to carry cargo to the war zone. The foreign crews on thirteen vessels mutinied, forcing those ships to abandon their military mission. Would foreign flag carriers be any more reliable today, especially for a long-term deployment into active war zones?
But the number of ships is not the only issue: The U.S. Transportation Command and Federal Maritime Administration estimate that our country is now at least 1,800 mariners short of the minimum required for adequate military sealift, even with the Jones Act firmly in place. Without the Jones Act, our nation would be wholly unprepared to meet the labor demands of rapid, large-scale force projection for national security.
Opponents of the Jones Act routinely claim that it is an outdated protectionist anachronism that does more harm than good, but nothing could be further from the truth. A comprehensive 2018 survey of seafaring and industrial nations around the world shows that cabotage laws such as the Jones Act, which provide for domestic preference for shipping policies, are the norm, not the exception. Ninety-one U.N. member states comprising 80 percent of the world’s coastlines have cabotage laws protecting domestic maritime trade. The conclusive fact from this survey is clear: seafaring nations understand the importance of their domestic maritime industries, and have laws on the books to safeguard them.
The recent tragedy following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico also brought the Jones Act into the public limelight. Opponents of the Jones Act sought to make the case that the Jones Act inhibited the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico by limiting the availability of emergency shipments, and by making goods more expensive in general. Neither of these claims are supported by the facts. First, the Jones Act did not impact relief efforts on the island at all. Jones Act compliant coastwise carriers had, and continue to have, more than enough capacity to carry the necessary cargo to the island. Rather, the delay in delivery and distribution of relief supplies was caused by shattered internal infrastructure on the island, rather than cargo capacity. Just as important, a recent nonpartisan economic study found that the Jones Act does not impact consumer prices in Puerto Rico. Rather, the Jones Act has a net positive economic impact, because the certainty of the regularly scheduled coastwise trade allows shippers to invest in state of the art maritime technologies and local port investments. In fact, consumer price comparisons of common household commodities between Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands found that consumer prices on Puerto Rico are commonly lower.
Since our founding, our country’s economy and national security has relied on a vibrant maritime industry as a fundamental pillar. For nearly a century, the Jones Act has been the base of that pillar. As we look to the future, if we want to keep the United States as a great maritime power, we would be wise to preserve and protect this flexible, durable and valuable maritime policy.
Garamendi is ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.