Puerto Rico’s plight reveals unfair costs of Jones Act | Editorial

After days of hesitation, the Trump administration Thursday waived an outdated U.S. shipping law to facilitate a greater flow of affordable goods to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

We applaud the president’s action, though it doesn’t go far enough. The suspension of the 1920 Jones Act will last only 10 days. That’s hardly enough time to help the island’s 3.4 million American citizens who face months, if not years, of recovery from Hurricane Maria.

Several U.S. lawmakers have called for a year’s suspension of the Jones Act, which requires all goods shipped between American seaports to be carried by vessels built in the United States, and be owned and operated by Americans.

Better yet, let’s look at getting rid of this protectionist law, as Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, proposes.

“Trump admin has finally waived #JonesAct for #PuertoRico,” McCain tweeted Thursday. “Now Congress must repeal this law to aid long-term recovery.”

Most Americans had never heard of the Jones Act until Maria, a Category 4 hurricane, pummeled Puerto Rico a week ago.

The 1920 Merchant Marine Act may sound like a good “America-first” idea, but it’s done little to protect the U.S. shipping industry or its workers. It has, though, made life more expensive for American consumers. For an offshore territory like Puerto Rico, it can double or triple the price of most goods. And for coastal mainland states like Florida and Texas, it can hinder trade and economic development.

“In part because of the high cost of using Jones Act vessels, coastal shipping has steadily declined, even though it would otherwise be more efficient in many cases than trucks and railroads,” Bloomberg News argued in a recent editorial.

In recent days, with the Katrina-like disaster unfolding in Puerto Rico, the Trump administration has stepped up efforts to get more help and supplies to the island that is 1,100 miles away. However, many goods are stuck in the Port of San Juan amid logistical problems that include too few local truck drivers; clogged roads, particularly in inland areas; and a lack of electricity to operate port cranes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now in charge of restoring power there, and the U.S. military will oversee aid distribution.

Suspending the Jones Act will not solve any of these immediate problems. U.S.-flagged ships have moved massive amounts of water, food, generators and other donated goods to the island, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert pointed out during a White House briefing Thursday.

But in the long run, after the military and FEMA workers are gone, Puerto Rico is going to need help rebuilding its economy. And allowing it to buy goods cheaper and faster would be a good first start.

Puerto Ricans on the right and left have longed viewed the Jones Act as part of their colonial baggage, one that cements their perception of being second-class citizens.

Trump has been slow to grasp their concerns. Earlier this week, he opposed waiving the Jones Act for Puerto Rico, even though he’d done so for Florida and Texas after Hurricane Irma.

Many islanders are grateful he came around, hoping it will lessen shipping costs from the mainland.

“It is an act of justice,” the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, said Thursday on CNN. “It will allow Puerto Ricans to rebuild and to have a cost of living that really frankly is affordable.”

To help over the long term, the president should follow McCain’s lead and explore a full repeal.

Doing so would surely create winners and losers. But as he considers such a decision — and charts a course to help make Puerto Rico Great Again — the president should keep its people first.

Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Elana Simms, Andy Reid, Deborah Ramirez and Editor-in-Chief Howard Saltz.

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