The Jones Act, a law that supports the U.S. maritime industry, is alive and well despite many attempts over the years to weaken or circumvent its provisions.
The Act, named for its sponsor, Sen. Wesley Jones (R-Wash.), is a provision in the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 which mandates that cargo moving between two points in the U.S. be carried aboard vessels built, flagged, and owned in the U.S., and crewed by a majority of American citizens or permanent residents.
In October, Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) introduced the Close Agency Loopholes to the Jones Act (H.R. 5991), which he said, “will fill the gaps in nearly 50 years of anti-Jones Act decisions by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).”
If it becomes law, H.R. 5991 would, in part, close the “oceanographic research vessel” loophole, thereby preventing commercial vessels engaging in seismic-blasting and similar pre-construction activities for offshore energy development in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone at sea, as well as sewing shut “vessel equipment, lifting operations, and installation vessel” loopholes, “thereby preventing vessels with cranes and similar equipment from moving building materials into place to construct offshore energy development in the Zone.”
H.R. 5991 would also authorize Customs and Border Protection to “penalize foreign-flagged vessels operating on the Outer Continental Shelf under a purported Jones Act exemption for failing to notify the federal agency” and require that offshore energy developers pay a “prevailing wage” determined by the U.S. Department of Labor under the terms of the Davis-Bacon Act.
In addition, the Act would allow Jones Act operators to appeal “letter ruling” decisions by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and subject Customs and Border Protection’s enforcement of the Jones Act to the Congressional Review Act, which applies to nearly all other major national policy and regulatory decisions at federal agencies.
Aaron Smith, president & CEO of the 140-member Offshore Marine Service Association (OMSA), told Professional Mariner that CBP letter rulings “are completely contrary to the statutory text” of the Jones Act.
“What I mean by that is the letter rulings allow foreign flag vessels and foreign mariners to sail between U.S. points,” he said. “CBP bureaucrats are undermining the law and the U.S. maritime industry by taking a clear law that’s straightforward and interpreting its text in different ways. That’s wrong.”
The bill, added Smith, is “desperately needed and very well thought out…and is meticulous in identifying all of the ways CBP has sought to undermine the hard-working men and women of the U.S. maritime industry.”
Chances of a quick passage of Garamendi’s bill this year are “not great, but it could happen,” said Smith, noting that sponsors for the bill are actively being sought. If it fails to pass as a free-standing bill, he said, a place for the bill could be found in the Coast Guard Authorization Act or, if necessary, in the National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress routinely passes every year.
Garamendi, a former lieutenant governor of California, is a ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, “so there is a strong possibility his bill could be attached to the NDAA,” commented Smith.
“We’ve been working with Congressman Garamendi’s office for a while now on various pieces of legislation designed to promote the U.S. Merchant Marine,” said Brian W. Schoeneman, political and legislative director for the Seafarers International Union (AFL-CIO). “We’re supporting his Jones Act loopholes’ bill and have had a few conversations with him and the staff about it. I think we’re all expecting that if this legislation goes anywhere, it will likely be as part of a larger bill.”
Since its implementation more than a century ago, the Jones Act has been considered an “indispensable” law that is seen as a bulwark of the U.S. economy.
Among the Jones Act’s backers are U.S. military leaders; non-partisan, non-profit think tanks; well-respected journalists; published researchers and bipartisan legislators; and every Administration, no matter the party. Without exception, the Act’s supporters say the law is critical to the national, economic, and homeland security needs of the U.S.
In addition to the Seafarers International Union, H.R. 5991 is endorsed by a number of maritime industry organizations and trade unions including the Offshore Marine Service Association; American Waterways Operators; Sailors Union of the Pacific; American Maritime Officers; and the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots.
Also supporting the proposed legislation are the Marine Firemen’s Union; Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association; International Longshore and Warehouse Union; and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers, and Helpers.