The Energy 202: GOP lawmakers pressed Trump to waive Jones Act for Puerto Rico

 In World

In the latest sign of GOP lawmakers’ willingness to buck the White House, some Republican senators Wednesday pressed President Trump to exempt Puerto Rico from a 1920 shipping law to aid the plight of the U.S. territory after Hurricane Maria.

Initially, the Trump administration wavered in waiving the the Jones Act, a 97-year-old law that allows only U.S.-owned and -operated ships to move goods between U.S. shores, for the hurricane-ravaged island.  

But under pressure from fellow Republicans, President Trump acquiesced and granted the waiver, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Thursday morning. There was also a sense that Trump isn’t doing enough to help Puerto Ricans, slow to send enough supplies to the devastated island after speedier and more efficient responses to the impacts of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, respectively.

The drumbeat for a waiver from GOP lawmakers began Tuesday with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the most vocal intraparty critics of the president in the Senate.

Calling out the Department of Homeland Security, Arizona’s senior senator wrote a letter to the agency: “I am very concerned by the Department’s decision not to waive the Jones Act for current relief efforts in Puerto Rico, which is facing a worsening humanitarian crisis following Hurricane Maria.”

McCain, like many critics of the law, argued that the shipping restrictions drive up the price of fuel, food and other goods shipped to the U.S. territory in normal times. 

Jones Act supporters, however, contend the law protects domestic jobs in shipbuilding and other fields and that, in the case of Puerto Rico, there are enough U.S.-flagged ships to meet the island’s needs.

McCain, along with oil companies and other business interests, has long loathed the Jones Act. In July, he introduced an amendment repealing the law, but his effort failed to gain much traction.

McCain’s request was echoed by other Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“I would absolutely support that,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) told reporters on Wednesday when asked about waiving the Jones Act.

“If that’s what we need to do — in terms of being able to get things shipped, to help with the recovery — I think we should do that,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in a separate interview

“I think they should,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “The administration is saying that it’s not necessary, they have plenty of vessels. My argument is, what harm would there be to doing it? If they don’t need it, they don’t need it, but at least it’s available to them. I’ve asked them to do it, and I think they might reconsider.”

At first, DHS said the issue with transporting essentials to Puerto Rico was the damaged ports on the island, and stated there were more than enough U.S.-flagged ships available to meet the needs.

But on Wednesday morning, McCain tweeted that DHS denied a waiver request:

But the department said it never received a request for one.

“In terms of the Jones Act waiver, we have researched this — I read it in the news clips this morning — we have no known Jones Act waiver requests,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke told lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday. She added, “We are double-checking to make sure it isn’t true.”

The Trump administration’s foot-dragging in granting a waiver after Hurricane Maria, but not after Harvey and Irma (the shipping industry thought the Trump administration lifted the Jones Act after Harvey before it was necessary), fed into a narrative that president is less concerned about hurricane victims in the Caribbean than he is about those on the mainland. 

That narrative was kicked into high gear after Chelsea Clinton, the former first daughter, tweeted out a Wall Street Journal editorial board piece, “Second-Class Puerto Rico:”

From there, there were calls to get the obscure World War I-era cabotage law trending on Twitter.

Trump’s decision to grant an exemption will not be enough to satisfy all lawmakers. Long characterized as “the law strangling Puerto Rico,” the Jones Act had been seen even before the storm as an impediment to the recovery of the debt-saddled territory. On Monday, seven House Democrats, led by Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), asked in a letter to DHS to grant one-year waiver for Puerto Rico to help the island get on its feet. Velázquez also introduced a bill this week to broaden the government’s waiver authority under the Jones Act.

Other critics of the law, such as James Coleman, an energy law professor at Southern Methodist University, said before the White House announcement that “some are suspicious that prejudice may make the administration more willing to adopt a ‘hands are tied’ argument for enforcing the law.”

Indeed, Trump provided another explanation on Wednesday to reporters about why a waiver hadn’t been granted yet.

“Well, we’re thinking about that,” the president said, “but we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people, and a lot of people who work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted. And we have a lot of ships out there right now.”


— Plane drain: Who else in the Trump administration has been racking up frequent-flier miles? EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has taken at least four noncommercial and military flights since mid-February to the tune of $58,000, report The Post’s Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin. CBS News also has the story.

Records provided to a congressional oversight committee and obtained by The Post reveal the following about about Pruitt’s travels:

  • The most expensive flight, which cost the taxpayer $36,068.50, took Pruitt on a military jet from Cincinnati to John F. Kennedy airport in New York in early June so he could catch a flight to Italy.

  • On July 27, Pruitt and six staff members took a flight on an Interior Department plane from Tulsa to a small town of Guymon, Okla for $14,434.50.

  • On August 4, Pruitt and three staff members took a private air charter from Denver to Durango, Colo. for $5,719.58.

  • On August 9, Pruitt and two staffers traveling in North Dakota flew on a state-owned pane to a Grand Forks event for $2,144.40.

“Most people can’t lease a plane to fly around,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said. “I think as a public servant, you have to try to set some sort of example.”

Don’t let this story get lost in that jet-engine noise: Pruitt has threatened to end payments for the Justice Department’s work enforcing antipollution laws, The New York Times’ Charlie Savage reports.

Here’s what’s happening: “Under Mr. Pruitt, the E.P.A. has quietly said it may cut off a major funding source for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division,’ Savage writes. No decision will be made until the EPA’s budget is passed by Congress.

The confusing part: The proposed cut is head-scratching because that division “handle[s] litigation on behalf of the E.P.A.’s Superfund program seeking to force polluters to pay for cleaning up sites they left contaminated with hazardous waste,” according to Savage. Again and again, Pruitt has said cleaning up Superfund sites will be a top priority of his tenure.

The EPA’s response: It was, again, to use the Trump media playbook to attack the Times, as the agency has done in the past. Liz Bowman, spokeswoman for Pruitt, called the Times’s report “yet another conspiracy theory by The New York Times to draw space in the administration that doesn’t exist.”

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