Walter Blessey, chairman and CEO of Blessey Marine Services, the Harahan, La.-based tank barge operator, wrote an op-ed piece for WorkBoat.com on Sept. 20 in support of the Jones Act ("Support the Jones Act").
It’s no surprise that a U.S. inland barge operator would support the Jones Act, and Blessey’s arguments generally follow traditional reasoning in favor of the 100-year-old law. For that reason, it’s useful to examine them one-by-one as emblematic of the pro-Jones-Act resistance to what appears to be a growing national movement toward repeal. Certainly, the debate was reignited recently when the Trump administration relaxed Jones Act restrictions on cabotage in response to hurricane-related fuel shortages.
Tellingly, Blessey writes, “I am a free trade guy except when it comes to our national security.” Herein lies the central problem for conservatives who support the Jones Act: How do you reconcile a commitment to free trade with support for the most anti-free-trade legislation ever passed by Congress? But taking Blessey at his word, let us assume that without a national security angle, his commitment to free trade would overcome his other objections to its repeal. Accordingly, we can discount his claim that, “Yes, we could possibly hire foreigners cheaper. However, we would risk a lower standard of performance. We would risk an industry with more collisions, allisions, and oil spills.”
Whether this issue is central to national security is questionable. Not only is this insulting to foreign maritime professionals, it is not supported by statistics. Every day supertankers captained and manned by STCW-certified foreigners enter and leave U.S. and worldwide ports with no higher rate of accidents than tankers crewed by U.S-licensed mariners. And, looking to anecdotal as well as statistical evidence, let’s remember that the infamous Capt. Joseph Hazelwood of Exxon Valdez fame was U.S. Coast Guard licensed.
To support his argument against foreign crewpersons working in the U.S., Blessey asks, “Who would monitor these foreign crews? Neither the USCG nor Homeland Security is set up to regulate foreigners working on inland vessels. We would risk saboteurs who could cause incredible damage.”
Considering our porous southern border, the number of illegal aliens living in the U.S., and the fact that no foreign mariner has ever (according to a quick internet search) committed a terrorist act on U.S. soil, this argument is nothing but a makeweight. The very idea that a fully licensed, certified, and vetted foreign crewperson serving on a vessel in the U.S. presents a significant threat to national security — as a saboteur, no less — is naked jingoism.
Blessey’s second national-security argument is, that the “Jones Act requires that majority ownership of any vessel operating coastwise must be U.S. citizens. This makes sense to us. Do we want foreigners controlling our domestic commerce?” Surely the Coast Guard is capable of monitoring and regulating all maritime commerce in the U.S., including vessels operating under foreign ownership, but it’s a moot point. The reality of vessel ownership means that foreign interests are already free to dip their fingers in our cabotage trade to their pocketbooks’ content.
Finally, Blessey argues, “if ‘built in America’ is done away with, significant jobs will be exported and significant skills will fade away.” He doesn’t explain this contention, but one can hardly expect the skills of welding, pipefitting, electrical-system installation, etc. — required in many trades besides shipbuilding — to fade away.
Blessey is also incorrect when he says, “Export our textile industry, which we already have done since there is no national security interest in doing so.” The fact is that any reduction in the GNP affects our ability to fund an adequate military force, so exporting any industry affects our national security. What about the wholesale export of the automobile industry or the Marines’ purchase of foreign-built Harrier jets? If the shipbuilding provisions of the Jones Act are the sole or even major justification for the law’s continuance, then a better argument than creating Works Progress Administration (WPA)-style job security for welders and pipefitters will be needed.
Blessey concludes, “I believe that our national security interests trump free trade.” In doing so, he implicitly raises the question of what else trumps free trade? If all industry affects our national security, what doesn’t? A single-payer health system? Compulsory union membership? Nationalization of utility companies? Surely the power grid affects our national security. But, in the end, it may be that our national security will depend on the enlargement of free trade, not its diminution.