Just before graduation from California Maritime Academy, I had the chance to be in the audience for a debate on the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act) held during an industry symposium at the school. My blood boiled as I listened to a slick-talking shipping company vice president — attired in what looked like a very expensive Brooks Brothers suit — call for the destruction of the Jones Act, which would then allow replacing the U.S.-flag merchant fleet with foreign-registered ships. Afterward, an engineer friend and I were walking back to the dorms, with me complaining about the hatchet job we’d just witnessed. Joe, normally quiet and reserved, suddenly exclaimed, “I agree, Kelly, listening to that glorified car salesman’s baloney drove me nuts, too. At least one good thing came out of it, though.” I replied, “Yeah, what’s that?” He answered, “Now we know more about who our enemies are, how they think and what kind of propaganda they’re putting out.”
Knowing your enemy has been a cornerstone of strategy for thousands of years. I had to admit that until that day, it had never dawned on me that we actually had enemies who were dead set on destroying our domestic merchant marine and the laws that protect it. After watching that debate, and seeing that corporate spin master in action, I was naive no longer — and vowed to keep an eye and ear out for those who would threaten the livelihood of U.S. merchant mariners.
Over the years, I’ve observed a number of individuals in positions of power who have shown themselves to be our enemies. Two who come to mind are the late Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, and John Carroll, the former Republican state senator from Hawaii who recently made a run for mayor of Honolulu. Both called for the elimination of the Jones Act. Perhaps the most persistent anti-Jones Act politician is Rob Quartel. Nominated by Republican President George H.W. Bush, Quartel was a member of the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) from 1990 to 1992. After Bush lost his re-election bid, Quartel left the FMC and in 1995 became a founding member of the Jones Act Reform Coalition — an organization with a stated purpose of destroying the Jones Act and replacing the U.S.-flag fleet with foreign ships. Completely ignoring the threat of a terrorist on a foreign vessel working in our waters, Quartel said publicly in 2018 that he sees no increased security risk from replacing U.S.-flag ships with foreign-flag ones on our inland rivers and waterways.
There are also powerful organizations throwing shade on the U.S. merchant marine today, such as the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation. These privately funded conservative organizations seek to influence judges, politicians and the general public to see things their way — which, when it comes to the U.S. merchant marine, means eliminating the Jones Act. Even more sinister is the Cato Institute founded by the billionaire Koch brothers. It funds bogus anti-Jones Act studies and reports written by hacks who say just what the organization wants; the statements are then quoted as factual and used unremittingly to attack our livelihood and way of life.
Our adversaries inside the government also never rest in their quest to undermine the U.S. merchant marine. The current administration has proposed budget cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars to maritime programs, including the Maritime Security Program. After a condemnatory article published by the Heritage Foundation, in 2017 this administration also withdrew its proposal that 100 percent of U.S. foreign food aid be carried on U.S.-flag ships, caving in to political pressure and reducing it back down to 50 percent. Reversing a decision made under the Obama administration, Customs and Border Protection in 2019 bowed to our political opponents and nixed a proposal that would have prohibited foreign-flag vessels from delivering oil field equipment to and from rigs working in our domestic waters. These decisions alone have cost U.S. merchant mariners thousands of jobs.
It was a family member who gave me advice on how to fight back against all the attempts to undermine our merchant marine. For over 20 years, Bruce Sweeney served in the Idaho Legislature, his district including the state’s only ocean-connected port. An amateur sailor and nautical aficionado, I’d just paid off a chemical tanker when he invited me to lunch with him on his 60-foot yacht moored in Seattle’s Lake Union. We talked for a while about life at sea, and of my recently published book. Then I asked his opinion on how to deal with another anti-Jones Act push by Quartel that had me concerned. Bruce replied, “You already give money to pro-merchant marine political action groups, so the next steps are calling and writing letters to your elected officials, getting the truth out when talking to friends and colleagues, writing letters to the editor, and going to meetings and events. Politicians figure that for every letter or call they get, or for every person who speaks up at a meeting, there are many others who think the same way. That’s why you mariners have to get involved. If people never hear the positive side of the Jones Act and U.S. merchant marine, your detractors automatically win.”
Bruce’s political insight convinced me to use every opportunity I’ve been given to push my pro-Jones Act/U.S. merchant marine views as a professional mariner. That includes hundreds of radio interviews and TV appearances, being quoted in papers including the San Francisco Chronicle to The Washington Post, and speaking at industry functions ranging from the Propeller Club and Navy League to the North American Short Sea Shipping Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. I’ve stirred the pot at meetings and protests, and most recently went online to a government website and posted my views regarding U.S. maritime laws.
These attacks against the Jones Act and the U.S. merchant marine have happened, and are continuing to happen, for one major reason: so shipping companies can have smaller crews, pay their mariners less, and operate ships not under the expert regulatory supervision of the U.S. Coast Guard. In other words, our enemies want to kill the U.S. merchant marine, cut tens of thousands of U.S. citizens out of jobs, skirt our national security laws, and operate substandard ships in our waters — all so they can make a few more bucks at our country’s expense. It is up to us to do all we can to stop them.
Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’
Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.