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WJ Editorial

Scariest Challenge Of 2017? Anti-Jones Act Hysteria

The past year was full of challenges for the inland waterways, and the maritime industry generally. Some of these were somewhat under its control and others were quite beyond it.

In the first category, paradoxically, lies the most pressing challenge:  continued low barge rates resulting from overbuilding. Fortunately the barge industry has come a long way since a similar rate plunge during the 1980s recession. The industry is showing discipline and a rebound is expected within the next few years.

Natural disasters, from a severe tornado in New Orleans in February to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria (among other, lesser storms) are out of our control, but the swift and effective response to them by the Corps of Engineers, other federal, state and local agencies, the Gulf Coast ports and the maritime industry limited their impacts on trade and cargo movements, even if homeowners and cities will be dealing with their aftereffects for years.

The unscheduled closures at several locks and dams, especially Locks and Dams 52 and 53, had significant impacts on movements of export crops and other commodities, but also had the “benefit” of focusing national attention on the crumbling waterways infrastructure. President Trump made some good promises and supplied a standout PR moment for waterways infrastructure in June, but his infrastructure agenda remains locked in contention so far, with details now expected to come out in January. The infrastructure story is one that the barge industry has been repeating to anyone in Washington who will listen for decades now, so it is at least a familiar challenge.

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Observers can disagree about which events in 2017 most challenged the industry. But if we had to choose, our vote for the single most worrying one would be the hysteria and misinformation surrounding the Jones Act that briefly blew up the internet and social media following Hurricane Maria.

“Normal” insider politics at first seemed to work, as the maritime industry made its voice heard inside the White House and persuaded the president and his advisors that the exemptions from the Jones Act in the wake of Katrina were unnecessary then and not needed now.

But social media and the bitter partisan wars centered around a controversial president rapidly inflated the Jones Act, until now one of the most reliably bipartisan issues in Washington, into a piñata. The level of attack was unprecedented. Falsehoods and misinformation about it went viral. The cycle finally abated when pictures of Puerto Rican docks bulging with relief supplies—taken by Crowley Marine personnel—laid to rest some of the more outrageous claims and the attention cycle moved on.

But as with other issues, many of the falsehoods about the Jones Act linger on even after they are refuted, waiting to be resurrected and repeated in the next cycle. Could another media storm in a future administration result in modifications to the Jones Act, or even its overturning? The idea was once almost unthinkable, but in the social media age, nothing can be taken for granted.