Jones Act waivers aren’t a solution; they’re a symptom of the problem

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Residents of Hawaii — like the residents of any area regularly visited by hurricanes — know how to prepare for a big storm. Plywood goes up on windows. Yards are cleared of debris. Supermarket shelves are stripped bare as people stock up on water, food, and emergency supplies.

The sad irony is that we can take all the proper steps to prepare for a hurricane, but our ability to recover is heavily dependent on a decision made thousands of miles away in Washington, DC. And like all decisions made in Washington, it’s subject to politics.

{mosads}I’m speaking of requesting a Jones Act waiver in the aftermath of a disaster. And the inherent absurdity of a hurricane-ravaged area having to beg for a reprieve from a law that hampers rebuilding efforts.

The Jones Act is a century-old law governing American shipping. It requires that any goods traveling between two U.S. ports do so on ships built and flagged in America, with a predominantly American crew. Intended to protect the American shipping industry, the Jones Act has presided over the slow decline of U.S. shipyards. Meanwhile, it puts additional burdens on shipments to U.S. ports, especially in noncontiguous territories like Hawaii and Puerto Rico. When a disaster occurs, the only way to allow non-Jones Act ships to aid the affected areas is through a Jones Act waiver.

The destruction caused by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017 all brought the Jones Act — and how it hampers the shipment of vital supplies — into the popular consciousness. The Trump administration quickly issued Jones Act waivers following Harvey and Irma, which had seriously affected fuel shipments in the Gulf of Mexico. However, a waiver for Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria was slower in coming. Debate raged for days before the president granted a 10-day waiver in response to a request from the governor of Puerto Rico.

Jones Act waivers for areas hit by hurricanes have become more common, but they aren’t automatic. Limited waivers were granted after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Opponents of the waivers claim they aren’t necessary, won’t help or won’t result in additional shipments of supplies. Following Hurricane Rita, the U.S. shipping industry claimed there were sufficient Jones Act ships to help.

Waivers are granted on the theory that they’re necessary for national security. While this is not necessarily a difficult case to make, someone does need to request the waiver. In an area like Hawaii, politicians (who would ordinarily make the request) often have existing relationships with Jones Act interests. That’s why the Grassroot Institute decided to step in when Hawaii was threatened by Hurricane Lane.

Few major political figures in Hawaii have dared to oppose the well-heeled Jones Act interests, so the Grassroot Institute decided not to wait until after the disaster to ask for help. On Aug. 22, we sent a letter to President Donald Trump, requesting a Jones Act waiver for Hawaii if the hurricane were to hit our state.

Thankfully, the islands were not hit directly, but many residents still suffered damage, and a Jones Act waiver would have helped keep the flow of goods coming. However, there’s a bigger lesson to be learned from the waiver process.

The fact that a waiver is needed to address emergency situations is eloquent testimony to the fact that the Jones Act is a continuous burden to businesses and consumers. In essence, U.S. Jones Act policy could be summarized as: “We expect you to put up with the expense and inconvenience all of the time — but if you’re really in trouble, we’ll give you a break.”

It is absurd that we are reduced to petitioning for relief from the act during an emergency. It is more absurd that Congress hasn’t acted to modernize the Act and eliminate the harm that it does when we’re not in crisis.

Malia Hill is the policy director of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii (@GrassrootHawaii), a public policy think tank dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, free markets and limited, accountable government.

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