Attackers of the Jones Act have a bad habit of ignoring the inland waterways and considering only blue-water indicators of its success. They point to the shrinkage of the U.S. blue-water merchant fleet as an argument that the Jones Act hasn’t done what it set out to do.
We recommend that these critics read a recent report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent, nonpartisan think tank. The report, titled “National Security Contributions of the U.S. Maritime Industry,” offers the broader picture so often lacking in discussions of the Jones Act.
One strong argument for the Jones Act has always been that we need U.S. shipyards to build vessels for the U.S. military services. The report delivers the expected arguments in favor of the Jones Act—that it supports U.S. shipyards that serve military vessels, maintains a pool of shipard talent, and supports merchant seamen and vessels that help sustain American military missions abroad, via measures like the Maritime Administraiton’s Ready Reserve Force.
But the report pays more attention than other Jones Act defenses to the inland waterways. It estimates the entire U.S. domestic fleet at about 40,000 vessels, “of which [only] 99 are large Jones Act compliant vessels.”
The report notes, “Although most shipyards that build larger U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships do not generally construct commercial vessels, the shipyards that build smaller ships for the government depend on orders for commercial Jones Act-complaint vessels to stay in business. … During the last decade, U.S. shipyards delivered more than 2,200 ships, boats and ocean-going barges—including 168 large-ocean-going vessels—and more than 9,000 inland barges.”
The report points out that “outside of ships required to be U.S.-built under the Jones Act, U.S. commercial shipbuilding faces step challenges from shipbuilders in China, South Korea and Japan.” These challenges are faced by all global shipbuilders, not just U.S. ones, and have led to global shipbuilding being concentrated in those countries. Of course, those countries offer various incentives and subsidies to those industries, making nonsense of the “free market” arguments often used by Jones Act attackers.
The report makes points that few others have made. “Often overlooked, the U.S. domestic fleet also includes American dredging, towing and salvage fleets. … A domestic dredging industry prevents the Unites States from depending on foreign companies to dredge its dozens of naval facilities, potentially opening up opportunities for sabotage or the depositing of underwater surveillance equipment.”
It makes another important point about security in inland ports. “The large ports that move international shipments … are designed and staffed to enforce immigration and customs requirements. Smaller ports along the U.S. coast and inland waterways are not generally equipped to enforce those regulations.” Nor do they need to at the current time—because the Jones Act requires all-U.S. crews aboard inland vessels. Were that ever to be repealed, and foreign nationals were ever allowed to crew U.S. inland vessels, a whole new host of security questions would be raised and inland ports would need to develop those measures, at great expense.
We hope this report gets a wide reading among lawmakers and anyone concerned with maritime policy.