President Biden Supports the Jones Act – What Is It?

 In container ports, International Shipping, maritime shipping

Among the flurry of executive orders from the new administration (President Biden had already signed 40 executive orders and actions as of a week ago) is an order in which the president reaffirms his support for the controversial Jones Act. If the executive order didn’t make his support clear enough, the president’s words crystalized his views on the legislation:

Port full of shipping containers

The executive action I am taking also reiterates my strong support for the Jones Act and American vessels, you know, and our ports, especially those important for America’s clean energy future and the development of offshore renewable energy.

The Jones Act, actually named the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, turns 101 this year. Colloquially called the Jones Act after Washington Senator Wesley Jones who introduced the legislation, federal statute 46 USC section 883 has long been a focal point of controversy. Opponents of the legislation call it outdated and say it needs to be repealed or at least reformed, but the Jones Act also has staunch supporters, lobbying for its continuation.

This post gives a quick overview of what the Jones Act, and in a follow-up blog post, we will present the arguments for and against this impactful piece of legislation.

What Does the Jones Act Do?

There are two main things the Jones Act does.

  • 1. The Jones Act requires goods shipped between U.S. ports to be transported on ships that are U.S. built, owned, and crewed.
  • 2. The Jones Act gives seamen and offshore oil rig workers (and their families) the right to be paid damages in the event of injury or death due to negligence, dangerous working conditions, or if a ship or rig is found to be unseaworthy.

Workers’ Rights Not At Issue

The first of the two things the Jones Act does is what usually gets discussed when whether or not to repeal the legislation is debated. I have seen much debate over whether or not U.S. built, owned, and manned ships should be the only ones allowed cabotage between U.S. ports but no controversy over seamen and rig workers’ rights to sue over injury and death.

The workers protections provided by the Jones Act are sometimes misunderstood. Because the Jones Act is heavily supported by the dockworker unions, people often think the protections are for longshoremen. They are not. Dockworkers are afforded similar rights to sue for damages through the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.

The main reason the Jones Act is so heavily supported by the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), representing the dockworkers on the east coast, and the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU), representing dockworkers on the west coast, is that the Jones Act creates the need for more ship calls at the ports, and therefore, more work for longshoremen.

Jones Act Is Not a Partisan Issue

As polarized as politics are, the Jones Act debate is not one that falls down political lines. It would not be surprising to see it become one more issue on which our two major political parties take opposite sides; however, both Republicans and Democrats have called for the repeal of the Jones Act and both Democrats and Republicans have defended it.

As aforementioned, the dockworkers unions, which heavily support the Democratic Party, staunchly support protecting the Jones Act. Their lobbying carries weight in the Democratic Party. On the other hand, the U.S. military also tends to support the Jones Act on arguments of national security, which tends to carry weight with the Republican Party.

On the other hand, the regulatory nature of the Jones Act goes against the smaller government, less regulation ideals of the right. On the left, arguments are being made that the Jones Act is “strangling Puerto Rico.”

In a followup blog, we’ll get into the arguments for why the Jones Act should be repealed or kept.

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Jones Act Debate