In response to the devastation in Puerto Rico, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) urged the Department of Homeland Security to reverse course and waive the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, otherwise known as the Jones Act, which is a law that requires shipments between U.S. ports to be carried out exclusively by vessels built and operated by Americans. The federal government has ruled out a temporary setting aside of the Jones Act, which prevents Puerto Rico from receiving shipments from the continental United States aboard foreign vessels, even though it may be cheaper and faster.

McCain wrote a letter to DHS, stating, “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.” He added, “It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements to as they work to recover from this disaster.” 

On Monday, eight House Democrats asked that DHS waive the Jones Act for one year for Puerto Rico. "Temporarily loosening these requirements -- for the express purpose of disaster recovery -- will allow Puerto Rico to have more access to the oil needed for its power plants, food, medicines, clothing and building supplies," said a letter, spearheaded by Reps. Nydia Velazquez of New York, Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Jose Serrano of New York.

President Donald Trump temporarily suspended the Jones Act after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, while it was permanently suspended after Hurricane Maria for the U.S. Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico was the exception.

A former naval aviator, McCain has long called for repealing the Jones Act, claiming that abolishing it “would lead to hastened recovery efforts where our country needs it most.” In response, DHS claims that the problem Puerto Rico is currently facing is not the number of American vessels moving goods to Puerto Rico, but the capacity of the island’s ports to offload and transit supplies. On Wednesday, FEMA announced that daylight operations at Puerto Rico’s ports have been restored.

Conditions in Puerto Rico remain dire, and 3.4 million people are without electrical power. Potable water and food are scarce. However, the Pentagon has joined with various civilian federal agencies to bring in needed supplies and provide security. Thousands of sailors, marines, coast guards, national guards, and civilian disaster relief personnel have been deployed to the island commonwealth.

Other critics of the Jones Act contend that depending on fossil fuel imports by sea hampers restoration of vital services. According to Salim Firth of the Heritage Foundation, Puerto Rico currently depends on petroleum shipments from socialist Venezuela. The Jones Act, Firth wrote, imposes higher shipping costs on Puerto Rico than on neighboring islands. To involve American businesses and workers on the mainland in Puerto Rico’s recovery, a rapid increase in capacity and speed are necessary, Firth wrote.

Firth continued, “Until Trump overrides Homeland Security’s decision, demand for fuel, concrete, steel, copper wire, vehicles, and building machinery will soar in Puerto Rico, but American suppliers will likely be left out in the cold. Puerto Ricans will be forced to overpay for rebuilding supplies (not to mention food, clothing, and medicine) or to buy them from other countries. Puerto Rico’s badly damaged energy sector relies on oil imports from Venezuela, a socialist dictatorship that uses its revenue to prop up anti-Americanism in Latin America. If issued a waiver, Puerto Rico could switch to cheaper, cleaner natural gas from sources such as Pennsylvania and Texas."

He called on the federal government to issue a blanket waiver from the Jones Act for Puerto Rico for as long as the island needs federal aid for is rebuilding. In addition, to prevent a windfall for foreign oil producers from Hurricane Maria, Firth advocated a permanent exemption from the Jones Act for all fuel tankers.

In testimony on Wednesday, DHS Secretary Elaine Duke told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that her agency has not received any waiver requests. "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. We did receive a congressional letter today. We are double-checking to make sure it isn't true," Duke said. "There's two issues with Puerto Rico. One is the potential shortage of carriers with the U.S. flag carriers. The second is tariffs and other things that make the fuel cost high in Puerto Rico, and that's what we're hearing, too, that people are suffering from the tariffs."

Despite McCain's tweets and letter about the Jones Act waiver, DHS denies that a waiver request has been received. DHS officials say that the granting of a waiver is done under law and in restricted circumstances. DHS may issue a waiver only in the interest of national defense, according to DHS officials. 

Writing at NRO online, Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute said that the Jones Act is an "Outdated protectionist law that is hurting Puerto Rico." He called for repealing the law, which he claimed was written to benefit only the maritime industry in the US. 



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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