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A critical aspect of successful military campaigns is movement of equipment and material. Battles are often won or lost based on a nation’s ability to supply its warfighters.
Today’s greatest threats come from countries that are fundamentally “wet” – North Korea, Yemen, Iran and hegemonic China. Provision over sea is a key U.S. military priority, as we are short on supply ships and airplanes have limited capacity. Previous provisioning deficiencies were well-documented during the Persian Gulf wars when families sent protective gear to their soldiers by FedEx.
Enter the 1920 Jones Act, designed so that in a time of military emergency, American cargo ships could provide supplies critical to battle success and personnel survival. Deep water cargo ships built, registered and operated by Americans and regulated by the Jones Act are the back-up plan.
Much like the flu, opposition to the Act by those claiming it is either costly or “protectionist” appears routinely. But it is neither; indeed, it is rooted in our founding.
Starting with the first Congress of 1789, the Founders recognized protection of our civilian merchant ships was inextricably linked to our economic and national security interests. The Merchant Marine (“Jones”) Act of 1920 was passed “for national defense, development of commerce (and) … to have a merchant marine capable of serving as an auxiliary in war or national emergency.”
The Act sets policy for moving goods from one domestic port to another. Foreign ships cannot offload in one U.S. port, upload more goods, and then deliver them to another American. port. This also applies to planes, trains and automobiles. No foreign transport agent can pick up freight in one U.S. destination and move it to another.
China’s state-owned container ships already fill American ports. Imagine U.S. job numbers and our transportation economy if Chinese government vessels and vehicles could ship oranges from Florida to Texas, or lumber from Oregon to South Carolina.
Economic and policy aspects of the Act have created analysis wars, with detractors unable to prove negative impacts. Port shipping has so many variables (weather, fuel prices, supply, demand, mercurial foreign competition) that quantifying micro effects is uniquely challenging.
Decades ago, the United States International Trade Commission announced the Act increased the cost of certain goods. Yet the Government Accounting Office claimed it did not, noting USITC reviews were “unverifiable,” “uncertain,” “incomplete.” Over time, USITC agreed with the GAO about its own failings, finally admitting it “could not quantify its negative assumptions.”
A recent study by research firms Reeve & Associates and Estudios Técnicos compared specific goods costs between the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico and determined the Act does not increase prices on the island. This matters tremendously, as Jones Act opponents often cite “harm” to Puerto Rico’s cost of living as a reason to overturn it.
The mainland is Puerto Rico’s number one export partner at 70 percent, making the Act a non-issue in its export trade. More than 67 percent of vessels trading in Puerto Rico are foreign, and it enjoyed an $892 million trade surplus in May. Puerto Rico has become the number one U.S. exporter of pharmaceuticals and medicinal products, shipping around the globe.
Problems with cost and movement of goods in Puerto Rico are manifold. Roads and infrastructure are a mess. There is no freight rail. The main port is small, shallow and cannot accommodate two-way traffic. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, relief supplies sat offshore for weeks — not because of Jones Act protections, but because ports could not accommodate the volume and trucks were stuck in remote parts of the devastated island.
In June, the Army held a supply exercise called Nautical Horizon in the Persian Gulf. Although the Navy is in charge of water battles, the Army still must transport equipment over waterways. But it can’t move anything there that has not arrived from here.
In late September, my son will graduate from Army Officers Candidate School and go on to officer leadership training in his chosen branch, infantry. He is eager to deploy.
Today’s diplomatic dustup could easily escalate into tomorrow’s full-out war, and we can’t have soldiers’ families again putting Kevlar helmets in mailing boxes because the military cannot keep up with distribution. There must be a Plan B to supply my son and all warfighters with everything they need to come home in one piece.
The Jones Act is Plan B. It protects the integrity of our ports without negative economic consequences and provides a critical option to our military. Navy Adm. Christopher McMahon recently defended the Act in a maritime law journal by noting, “U.S. flag shipping is still critical to health of our nation.”
Our merchant marine excels at moving cargo, and we must not stand in the way of our military accessing that expertise. Military families would surely agree.
Kerri (Houston) Toloczko is a public policy analyst and previously served as a Commissioner to the U.S.-China Economic Security and Review Commission.