The Jones Act has been in the news a lot lately, since the governor of Puerto Rico asked that Puerto Rico should be exempt from the Act.
If you’re following the news, you’re seeing claims that the Jones Act makes the cost of living in Puerto Rico higher than it should be, because, as one article put it, “Every product sold in Puerto Rico, from food to building materials, has a higher price because shipping costs to the territory are so great.”
The Government Accountability Office recently did a thorough study of the question, and found that this was not the case. For one thing, the majority of the ships carrying freight to and from Puerto Rico are foreign ships. The GAO also concluded that, if the Jones Act didn’t keep ships in Puerto Rico, the Navy or Coast Guard would have to do so, at the expense of the federal government. You can see for yourself if you want to read the report.
But what exactly is the Jones Act? It’s also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, and it covers all kinds of details about how the shipping industry is conducted. The part that the current headlines are referring to is the part where it says that ships taking freight from one U.S. port to another have to be built in the U.S., have to fly the U.S. flag, and that the crews have to be American.
So an Italian ship can’t go to New York, pick up a shipment of canned peaches, and carry them on to Puerto Rico. Those peaches have to be carried from New York city to San Juan by an American ship with an American crew.
The main reason for this, when the law was passed in 1920, was to make sure that the U.S. shipping industry stayed strong while the U.S. was not at war. If another war came, people figured, it would be important that the U.S. had the things it would need for maritime action:
- seaworthy ships in many places
- the ability to build more ships if they were needed
- skillful sailors who could be called on to serve as crew for the ships
The government figured that the best way to make sure the U.S. maintained the capacity to provide these things was to make sure that the shipping industry stayed strong during peacetime. Protecting the shipping industry to some extent against foreign competition seemed like a good way to accomplish that.
Support for keeping the Jones Act as it is today is strong in Congress. Organizations such as the Navy League have written to the House Armed Services Committee about the importance of the Jones Act for national defense. Support for the Jones Act in Puerto Rico focuses primarily on this point: that it is important for the safety of Puerto Rico and the United States as a whole.