The Jones Act is a classic protectionist law, put in place to prop up the American maritime industry. That makes it appealing to politicians like Trump, who were elected in part on promises of protectionism. But critics of the law like Furth argue that the Jones Act is actually hurting more American workers than it’s helping, by artificially increasing the cost of getting U.S.-made goods to places like Puerto Rico, Alaska, and Hawaii, and that the true America-first option would be to dismantle the Jones Act.
The debate over whether the law remains sensible nearly 100 years after it was first implemented is a subject of intense debate in pockets of the country—places where residents rely on cargo ships for basic goods, like Hawaii, and in regions whose economies are tied to shipbuilding, like the Gulf Coast—but only occasionally does the mandate bubble up in national discourse. For those fighting to dismantle the act, especially, the disaster in Puerto Rico offers a rare opportunity for political change.
The coalition against the law crosses party lines. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, has emerged as one of the law’s fiercest critics. Puerto Ricans have long disliked the law, complaining that it raises the price of many goods for the territory, whose economy is already in shambles. Assessing the exact cost, however, is all but impossible. The GAO found that rates to Puerto Rico had dropped between 2006 and 2010, but effectively threw up its hands in despair and said it was too complicated to calculate what effect removing or altering the Jones Act might have.
Rosselló, a Democrat, hinted at this debate during an interview on MSNBC Wednesday, in which he asked for the waiver and added, “We can have a larger discussion later if [the Jones Act] is important in the long run or not.” A group of Democrats in the House, led by Puerto Rican-born New Yorker Nydia Velazquez, this week called for a one-year waiver of the Jones Act for Puerto Rico.
Arrayed against changing the Jones Act are the shippers, longshoremen, and others involved in the existing trade, as Trump indicated in his remarks Wednesday. “The power of this maritime lobby is as powerful as anybody or any organization I have run up against in my political career,” McCain said in 2014.
Issuing a 10-day waiver is politically palatable, but Furth says it’s also inadequate. “A year, two-year, three-year waiver would actually allow American workers to have jobs funded by the Puerto Rico rebuilding,” he says. “I hope there’s a message that says, this isn’t just about charity. Free trade with ourselves benefits everyone.”
The obvious endpoint of this argument is that if waiving the Jones Act provides such clear benefits long after the storm has passed, but while rebuilding is ongoing, why should it exist at all?
That’s part of a much longer political fight that’s been raging over the Jones Act for years. Right now, the American public demands action—and it will get action, in the form of short-term waivers, even if that’s not the most effective way to help Puerto Ricans.