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Playing politics with hurricanes is a low-rent tactic

By George LandrithThe Hill

Most Americans were disappointed when opportunists played politics with hurricane-caused tragedies in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, even more serious-minded players seem willing to politicize the weather to advance their pet political projects.

A recent op-ed by Andrew Wilford, “Recent hurricanes remind us why we should scrap out-of-date shipping rule,” gets basic facts and analysis dead wrong.

The article labels the Jones Act “archaic” because it’s a “100-year old law.” For the record, the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech is more than 225 years old. Some “old” things are actually time-tested and stick around because they work.

The Jones Act was passed after World War I when America committed to never again being thrust into war without the necessary shipbuilding and repairing industries or the needed transport ships and skilled mariners to support our soldiers.

No serious person suggests America buy missile defense or submarines from Russia or China. Likewise, America cannot outsource our ability to supply our military. Imagine shipping high-tech military cargo on Chinese ships. During the long voyage, they could inspect, sabotage and reverse engineer our technology.

Opponents of the Jones Act often claim cargo shipped in or out of Puerto Rico must be transported on Jones Act vessels. Not true! Cargo from around the world can be imported into Puerto Rico. Almost two-thirds of the vessels calling on Puerto Rico are foreign-flag ships.

The Jones Act provides that foreign vessels can service one American port and then must leave for a foreign port before returning to an American port. To make multiple consecutive stops at American ports, a ship must be American with an American crew.

For example, foreign ships with foreign crews may not deliver goods to New Orleans and then proceed up the Mississippi to make additional stops throughout America’s heartland.

As a result, shipping between multiple U.S. ports is handled by American vessels with American crews. This ensures that America has a viable shipbuilding and repair industry and a capable American merchant marine to support and supply our military when needed.

This also helps protect the American homeland. Imagine the security nightmare of foreign ships and unvetted foreign crews with unknown allegiances traveling deep into America’s heartland making numerous stops wherever they please.

Notably, the Jones Act is not hindering aid to Puerto Rico. Existing Jones Act ships routinely serving the island have ample capacity to service Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria and are moving vital cargoes, including food, water, medicine, fuel and relief cargo.

Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association President Rodrigo Masses said residents received “2,500 shipping containers with food and other items [immediately after the storm], and thus Puerto Rico should not lack supplies.” The biggest challenge is distributing the needed goods throughout the island given the electrical and communications outages, damaged roadways and trucker shortages.

A 2013 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that the Jones Act has helped to ensure reliable, regular service between the U.S. and Puerto Rico — service that is important to the local economy and allows regular “just in time” service delivery, which is economically advantageous on an island where warehouse costs are high.

The GAO also found that Jones Act operators provide cost-effective and reliable “backhaul” service for exports from the island. GAO also highlighted the domestic shipping companies’ substantial investment in specialized equipment for Puerto Rico, “a benefit that provides cost savings.”

Some argue that America doesn’t have a viable shipbuilding industry anyhow, so why bother? But that is entirely false. I’ve personally seen large-scale, high-tech American shipbuilding. Other nations may build more ships, but they don’t build better ships. The Jones Act ensures that America can build the quality ships it needs.

If the Navy had to build, man and maintain enough transport ships to make the Jones Act unnecessary, it would cost taxpayers $65 billion, plus significant annual costs. The Jones Act ensures that America has the ships it needs and a viable shipbuilding and repair capability at a low cost.

The American people naturally want to help Puerto Rico. Now more than ever, the Jones Act is needed. It protects our homeland, and it ensures that quality products and goods get to Puerto Rico efficiently and economically.