Sooner or later, it had to come to this: the Jones Act debate as a wrestling match between two dominating political forces in Washington.
In one corner, national security, the 800-lb. gorilla that has loomed over national discourse for 15 years now. The challenger: free trade, the bipartisan faith that lowering U.S. regulations and trade barriers will, on balance, benefit all Americans.
Both are invoked amid renewed demands for changes to the 1920 Merchant Marine Act that mandates U.S. crews and U.S.-owned vessels carry cargo between U.S. ports.
The law increases costs to U.S. businesses and consumers, the free trade camp complains. Its allies in Congress, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Michael Pompeo, R-Kan., call the Jones Act a throwback to early 20th century isolationism and protectionism.
Refiners and petrochemical manufacturers want reforms to the Jones Act, and Washington think tanks are into the game.
“The citizen crewing requirement alone increases the daily cost to man a Jones Act vessel by at least six times the cost of a foreign-crewed ship due to inflated wage rates,” declared the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure in a January report “The Jones Act: Protectionism vs. Global Trade.”
That paper was trashed by a pro-Jones Act industry group, the American Maritime Partnership, who called it “littered with fabrications” and confused over the role of coastwise and inland U.S. maritime workers.
Lately, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zunkunft and other Jones Act defenders have been throwing back the national security argument – that the documentation and training required for U.S. citizens to work in maritime service helps defend an otherwise vulnerable back door.
Another think tank, the Lexington Institute, chimed in on that theme.
“It is particularly important that those vessels and crews which routinely travel between U.S. ports and especially the inland waterways through America’s heartland pose no threat to the homeland,” Lexington analyst Paul Gouré wrote. “It is for this reason that the higher standards with respect to ownership and manning requirements for Jones Act ships are so significant.”
With huge costs in money and personnel already spent to secure U.S. ports, “it makes no sense to add to the burden facing domestic security agencies by allowing foreign-owned ships operated by foreign crews to move freely throughout America’s inland lakes, rivers and waterways,” the report asserts.
Jones Act critics McCain and Pompeo have hawkish views on national security, so the conflict with free-trade absolutism just looks like another example of the intellectual gymnastics lawmakers perform to satisfy interest groups.
But more striking is their insistence that the U.S. maritime industry is overpaid – which is after all at the heart of Jones Act arguments. It is not a good time to pick that fight, in a presidential election year when voter discontent over the effect of free trade on U.S. jobs is already bringing the elites of both political parties to grief, in the persons of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.