Recently, it seems to be an increasingly popular move for prominent politicians to pick on the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act. Senator John McCain recently deemed the act “protectionist” and arguments in its favor “laughable.”
Established to insure that our country has a vibrant United States maritime industry, the act has recently fallen under criticism for failing to encourage international trade.
The Government Accountability Office, in a recent study of the Jones Act, admits that it does influence the way freight rates are set in international shipping. However, also according to the report, there are so many other factors that influence shipping rates that it is impossible to tell whether or not the act has a positive or negative impact on international shipping.
So why then, on such shaky evidence, are so many politicians going after the Jones Act? This is indicative of a general movement from within the Federal Government to distance itself from one of America’s oldest and greatest industries and methods of transportation.
But in an increasingly unstable world, it would be very unwise for the United States to move away from the vitally important naval branch of its commerce and military. With such recent unrest in the Middle East, and an increased wave of violence directed at U.S. citizens abroad, our fleet is a vital web of security that is cast world-wide, and protects not only those from the U.S., but greater global stability overall.
With the recent “pivot” to the Pacific, regional powers such as China and Russia are acting defensively, and their increased militarization can only heighten tensions in the region as they try to assert their dominance. China in particular has picked on a U.S. ally by reasserting their claim of sovereignty over Taiwan, who has been a recipient of billions of dollars worth of military aid from the United States since 2003.
North Korea poses its own problem to regional security in the Pacific. Although this rogue-nation is not a direct threat to the United States, its presence in an ocean-heavy region that is clearly a tinderbox ready to explode at the slightest move from any one of the aggressive players. But this region is not without many U.S. Allies, and in general such a large body of water containing so much potential for global trade cannot fall into disarray.
The United States has responded in kind by placing new missile defenses in Japan and ensuring that Taiwan is capable of rebuffing China’s repeated aggression. One can look to the recent mine clearing exercise off the Straight of Hormuz, aimed at reminding Iran that the United States is the world’s foremost stabilizing influence on the high seas– but will that soon change?
Sometimes the desire for a “free market” goes overboard– the Jones Act supplies much necessary regulation to enforce living and working conditions on U.S. vessels. If you take one look at the living conditions that the “free market” fosters on other international ships, one will see the value of such an act very quickly. Additionally, the act protects the ability of the United States to produce merchant ships and keep a well-trained and ready class of merchant mariners. These mariners have already provided essential support to operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the worldwide War on Terror.
Although the Jones Act still maintains bipartisan support and at least lip-service from the executive branch, writing may be on the wall for the marine industry. Many Americans have already been hurt by many executive-mandated waivers to the Jones Act and cargo preferences laws, weakening our ability to keep up a strong U.S. shipping presence worldwide.
On top of that, the Maritime Administration has an annual budget that sits at less than 1/4 the size of the Department of Transportation’s. As if that isn’t enough, the DOT is set to see a 34% increase in funding for rail, air and surface transit in the next six years.
Although the Maritime Security Program has been renewed through 2025 and will guarantee the production of 60 new ships within the next decade, the impact is only a partial blessing for U.S. mariners. Although the construction of the ships will bring in jobs, over 50% of the actual tonnage will be owned by foreign entities, which hurts U.S.-based shipbuilders.
Although the Coast Guard & Maritime Transportation act of 2011 is somewhat of a boon, in that it gives $25.7 billion to the Coast Guard, for the next two years, it contains some disturbing clauses. Buried within the bill, the Maritime Administration is allowed to waive compliance with the Jones Act based on the unavailability of U.S. tonnage. These vague passages are ripe for abuse; surely international shipping giants will make convincing bids for large energy and military shipping.
President Obama has only offered vocal support of the maritime industry and has yet to deliver on his promise to protect U.S. maritime laws. While this provides a nice counterbalance to nonsensical attacks on maritime laws from other politicians, actions speak louder than words– recent legislative action and budgetary decisions have only made it easier for the administration and other arms of the Federal Government to outsource America’s maritime shipping and naval defense to cheap yet unaccountable foreign entities.
In this era of geopolitical flux and international stability, this is a very poor time to degrade America’s naval presence around the globe– for both the interests of the United States and her allies, as well as general global commerce and stability.