The sixth Jones Act myth: Reform has to be all or nothing

The following was published originally as a “Letter from the President” in the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii policy brief “Five myths about the Jones Act,” issued in July 2021.

The Jones Act has been with us for more than 100 years. In that time, the world has changed and changed again. Yet, the 1920 federal maritime law remains stuck in the past, a relic of the economic and military concerns of a different era. The fact is, if you want to transport goods from one U.S. port to another, the Jones Act says you must use ships that are U.S. flagged and built and mostly owned and crewed by Americans.

Over the last century, a series of myths has grown up to justify the Jones Act’s continued existence. As America’s maritime industry has withered and contracted, the myths have flourished, carefully tended by those who would have us believe that the law bears no blame for the decline of America’s merchant marine.

Now, however, we live in an age of myth-busting. Research and data have shown us how flimsy the rationales for the Jones Act really are.

Is the Jones Act necessary for our national security, to protect jobs or to help our economy? No. As shown in our report, Five myths about the Jones Act — the Jones Act has actually undermined our national security, cost maritime jobs and become an economic burden.

One myth not contained in those pages, but which qualifies as a “sixth” Jones Act myth, is that we must be either totally for the Jones Act or totally against it. In truth, there are ways to bring the Jones Act into the modern era without repealing it.

One option is to let Jones Act carriers use ships built overseas, since U.S.-built ships typically cost four to five times more. As in the case of Guam, which already has such an exemption, the result would be more ships in service, more maritime jobs and lower consumer prices.

Another option is to exempt America’s noncontiguous states and territories from the law completely, as is the case with the U.S. Virgin Islands. Another is to expedite the waiver process when no Jones Act-compliant vessels are available to meet a legitimate need, as in the case of large LNG transport vessels.

The point is that modifying the Jones Act does not need to be an all-or-nothing proposition. We do, however, have to stop clinging to the old myths that have propped up the act for so long. Only then can we work together for a more prosperous and stronger America. Only then can we update the Jones Act for the 21st century.

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