How many hundred-year-old laws are there critical to U.S. national security in the 21st century? Only one: the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 also known as the Jones Act after its sponsor, former Senator Wesley Jones. It was promulgated at a time when unionization and protections for workers were just coming into vogue and much of the Act and its subsequent amendments have to do with the rights of merchant mariners.
Equally important were the Act’s provisions designed to promote and protect a strong merchant marine and shipbuilding industry in the United States. The Act places restrictions on what is called cabotage or the movement of goods between U.S. ports and the use of U.S. waterways, requiring that only U.S. built and flagged vessels conduct this trade and that at least 75 percent of the crews be U.S. citizens. In addition, the Act restricts the foreign steel content of repair work on U.S. flag vessels thereby restricting such activities to U.S. shipyards.
The Jones Act’s goals are, if anything, more important today than when the act was promulgated. The United States is a trading nation and a naval power. The overwhelming majority of U.S. military equipment and supplies is moved by ship. U.S. merchant mariners moved 90 percent of the combat cargo and supplies used by the military in the Iraq war. The maintenance of a fleet of U.S. flag cargo vessels is vital to ensuring that the military can respond to any wartime need. In addition, the Act helps to maintain a pool of U.S. merchant sailors who can be called upon to man government-owned sealift ships that are reactivated to support the wartime sealift effort.
The Jones Act is critical to the maintenance of a shipbuilding and repair industry and associated skilled workforce to support the U.S. Navy. The Act permits the Navy, which cannot acquire ships from foreign yards, to procure support ships such as tankers more cheaply by amortizing their costs across a larger production run that also includes commercial vessels. The repair and modernization of U.S. Navy vessels is dependent on the same workforce that performs similar work on commercial vessels. Without a flexible pool of skilled workers, the costs to the Navy of its repair and overhaul work would skyrocket.
The Act’s requirement that vessels engaged in cabotage be U.S.-flagged and that crews be at least 75 percent U.S. citizens also supports both homeland security and environmental safety. The inland waterway system allows ships to move deep into the nation’s heartland — up the Mississippi, across the Great Lakes and into the Chesapeake. It is vital that the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard be able to conduct security, safety and environmental checks of vessels and crews plying the inland waterways.
There are costs associated with the provisions of the Jones Act. However, these must be weighed against the nation’s national security needs and the requirement to secure America’s waterways. There are some parts of the manufacturing sector such as computers, communications electronics and vehicle power trains where the military can and should rely on an unfettered private sector. However, there are others where in reality the market is no longer free and the military is dependent on a small number of specialized producers. Shipbuilding is one of those areas where the government must maintain an arsenal of protected producers. In this context, the Jones Act continues to be a relevant and necessary restriction on free commerce.
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