All about the Jones Act, an obscure shipping law that some say is stalling Puerto Rico’s recovery

 In World
Hurricane Maria’s devastating blow to Puerto Rico has renewed interest in how the island’s relationship with the U.S. functions. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated with comments from a congressman who will be holding an emergency hearing Thursday aimed at defending the Jones Act, which shipping advocates say is not the reason Puerto Rico’s recovery has stalled. 

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, pretty much the entire island of Puerto Rico is dark, hot and running out of supplies — quickly. Because it’s an island, many lifesaving supplies will arrive by boat.

But Puerto Rico has to wait until American boats can reach its shores with supplies because of an obscure, World War I-era shipping law that the Trump administration is refusing to waive.

Trump’s decision to keep the Jones Act in place is also feeding into a narrative that the president is aloof to Puerto Rico’s problems. His administration lifted the Jones Act to help Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey in August and Irma this month. (Supporters of the Jones Act say the thinking within the shipping industry is that the Trump administration lifted the Jones Act after Hurricane Harvey before it was necessary, and Florida only needed a little bit of help from foreign-owned ships.)

Meanwhile, despite agitation from powerful members in Congress to get rid of the law entirely so we don’t keep having these debates after hurricanes, it’s likely to stay on the books.

Here’s what you need to know about the Jones Act.

What the Jones Act does: It requires that ships going from American coast to American coast be American — built, owned, flagged and crewed. That means goods going from the mainland to Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska and Guam, or even from Texas to New England, have to travel on U.S. ships, even if they’re not the most economical transport or readily available.

Authorities hand out water in Puerto Rico on Sunday. (Thais Llorca/European Pressphoto Agency/EFE)

Why that matters to hurricane relief: Foreign ships in nearby countries can’t zoom over to Puerto Rico with aid supplies. Only U.S. ships can.

“A foreign relief shipment to Puerto Rico, they have two choices,” said Scott Miller, an international trade expert with the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “One is to land in San Juan and pay tariffs associated with the Jones Act, or to take shipments to Jacksonville, offload the ship and reload it on a U.S. one.”

Update: David Lewis, vice president of Manchester Trade Ltd., said foreign ships can’t even enter U.S. ports under the Jones Act. “The Coast Guard won’t let them,” he said. 

Puerto Rican officials have long despised the law, arguing that it makes their food and goods much more expensive than on the mainland. Politicians in Hawaii have argued that ranchers have even resorted to flying cows to the mainland rather than shipping them. Other opponents of the law say it forces New Englanders to pay more for propane, holds up salt supplies to clear snowstorms in New Jersey and raises electricity rates in Florida.

Its supporters say there is no evidence that the Jones Act leaves shortages of actual ships arriving in a disaster, and until recently it wasn’t lifted routinely in natural disasters. Lewis said that most fuel comes through foreign ships, so lifting the Jones Act wouldn’t help Puerto Rico much anyway.

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