WWI-era Law Impedes Hurricane Recovery & Has Hampered Puerto Rico’s Economy for Years
An Assembly panel on Monday advanced legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Annette Quijano urging the federal government to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from restrictions under a World War I-era shipping law that is impeding Hurricane Maria rebuilding efforts.
“The federal government has a responsibility to do everything in its power to assist the people of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the most devastating hurricane to hit the island in a century,” said Quijano, chair of the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee. “The Jones Act, which for decades has impeded the growth of the Puerto Rican economy, is significantly more pernicious in the wake of Maria. Allowing an antiquated law to get in the way of long-term recovery and rebuilding efforts, while our fellow American citizens continue to suffer, is utterly irresponsible and unconscionable.”
Specifically, Quijano’s resolution (ACR-257) urges Congress and the President to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from certain provisions of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, to expedite the delivery of humanitarian aid, disaster recovery supplies, and fuel for its electric power plants by ship to Puerto Rico and to assist the recovery of Puerto Rico’s economy from the ongoing financial crisis by allowing for cheaper shipping options to the island for consumer goods, with the exception of goods necessary for national defense.
The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 is a federal statute that was enacted after World War I to maintain a vibrant merchant marine for the defense and economy of the United States. Certain provisions of the act require that all goods shipped by water between U.S. ports be carried in U.S. flagships that are constructed primarily in the U.S., owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Because Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the U.S. it is subject to the provisions of the Jones Act.
The shipping restrictions of the Jones Act have had a disparate impact on U.S. island states and territories like Puerto Rico because the islands import goods primarily by sea. Given that U.S. shipping companies are often more expensive than foreign shipping companies, the restrictions under the Jones Act drive up the cost of goods shipped by these companies and results in higher prices for island residents.
Quijano noted that almost half of Puerto Rico’s electricity is provided by petroleum and roughly a third is provided by natural gas, both of which must be imported, making it all the more imperative to Puerto Rico’s recovery that humanitarian aid, disaster relief supplies, and fuel for its electric power plants are imported to the island by ship in the most inexpensive and expeditious manner possible.
“Prior to Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico had already been suffering from an acute financial crisis, which prevented the maintenance of the island’s public utility and transportation infrastructure,” added Quijano. “A permanent exemption from the Jones Act will ensure that goods needed for the recovery of the island will be accessible without restriction from Puerto Rican ports and will help expedite the recovery process from this unprecedented disaster and from the ongoing financial crisis.”
On September 28, 2017, the Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security waived certain provisions of the Jones Act for 10 days, which permitted all ships, no matter their provenance, to dock at Puerto Rican ports without restriction, allowing residents to quickly access aid and fuel, helping to reduce the cost of goods needed for the disaster recovery. However, the waiver expired in October and the Department of Homeland Security announced it will not be extended.
“The disaster recovery effort in Puerto Rico will likely take years. It’s evident now that a law originally intended to protect Puerto Rico has done nothing but cause the island harm,” concluded Quijano. “As our fellow Americans on the island desperately continue to need clean water, power and other basic supplies, it’s time for the federal government to step up and invest in the future of Puerto Rico. That starts with the permanent suspension of the Jones Act.”
Once approved by both houses of the legislature, copies of Quijano’s resolution will be filed with the Secretary of State and transmitted to the President and Vice President of the United States, the Majority and Minority Leaders of the U.S. Senate, the Speaker and Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, and each member of New Jersey’s congressional delegation.