Peter Roff: Jones Act keeps U.S. safe

Published 2:41 pm Thursday, June 22, 2017

For some time now, the Jones Act, a federal law requiring all cargo moved by water between two points in the United States be transported on ships built, owned, and crewed by Americans, has been on the list of items targeted for elimination by reformers looking to save money for the taxpayers.

The argument opponents make, recently echoed in a study conducted by Thomas Grennes for the Mercatus Center, is the act raises the costs of any goods transported domestically by ship. In making the case against economic protectionism he and others neglect the significant national security implications inherent in the matter.

No one would call Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao anything other than a conservative with a strong preference for free market solutions to public policy questions. Yet she recognizes the value of the Jones Act, which earlier this year she called “a very important program that secures national security”

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“This is an area that I’m very familiar with,” she said. “The national security of the Merchant Marine fleet of this country is part of the way that we are able to be effective overseas and protect this country. So I am a great proponent of the U.S. flag Merchant Marine fleet,” something the Jones Act makes possible.

Ships owned and operated by firms based in countries besides the United States utilizing multi-national crews are free to enter U.S. international ports like New York and Seattle-Tacoma. These ports are considerably more rigorous when it comes to security, employing measures that begin  even before containers are loaded on vessels bound for our shores. The ports located on the more than 12,000 miles of navigable U.S. inland waterways are another matter entirely.

The inland river system directly benefits 38 states in America’s heartland, cutting through Middle America around some of the nation’s most prominent and largest cities. As such they are potential targets for terrorist activities involving nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction. The fact that all the ships who use them are American owned and operated and have American merchant mariners as their crews is as much a security measure as anything else.

If the transport system were disabled, even by something as simple as the scuttling of a single vessel in a busy inland waterway as part of an act of terror against the United States, it could be as damaging to the U.S. economy, at least in the short run, as the temporary shuttering of the New York Stock Exchange was after 9/11. It should not be a surprise to anyone that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has given particular attention to the importance of Great Lakes domestic shipping to the steel industry and the North American economy in general.

The prospect of terrorists infiltrating these vital commercial routes presents a challenge the government is simply not equipped to handle, at least not at this point in time. Congress should take up the challenge of reinforcing the safety measures already in place as part of President Donald Trump’s new infrastructure initiative, but it probably will never be enough. For every security measure we can think of there’s always someone smarter who can figure a way around it. It’s a continuous game of cat and mouse that makes it impossible to adequately guard every potential target and keep secure every mile along the different inland waterways.

Without the Jones Act or something very much like it, Congressmen Steve Scalise and Duncan Hunter recently wrote, “vessels and crews from foreign nations could move freely on U.S. waters, creating a more porous border, increasing possible security threats and introducing vessels and mariners who do not adhere to U.S. standards into the bloodstream of our nation.”

At the heart of the matter is crew composition. The Americans who serve aboard U.S. commercial vessels are highly trained, licensed, and well vetted. Moreover they regard themselves as partners with law enforcement in the fight against terror. When they see something threatening to U.S. homeland security, they say something — reporting to the appropriate agencies through established channels. They can be counted upon in ways crews with multi-national composition cannot.

There are many ways to reduce the costs of shipping goods over the inland waterway system. Abolishing the Jones Act might save consumers a few pennies here and there by reducing the price they pay for certain items but the potential cost is very, perhaps even unacceptably high. From a security perspective eliminating the act could be a significant lose/lose proposition placing substantial pressures on an already overburdened security system. The costs of trying to update the security, which would also ultimately be passed along to consumers — depending on how it was done — through higher prices or higher taxes, would almost certainly wipe out any savings achieved by opening up these routes to foreign competition.

The unseen benefits the act provides make America stronger while helping keep the border secure.

Peter Roff is a former senior political writer for UPI and a well-known commentator based in Washington, D.C. Email him at