June 21, 2010

June 21, 2010 | Commentary on International Law

GOP Senators Introduce Bill to Suspend Jones Act

Republicans are putting the pressure on President Obama to waive the Jones Act. Three GOP senators introduced legislation Friday to ease the passage of foreign ships in the Gulf of Mexico to help with the oil spill cleanup.

The bill,introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and George LeMieux (R-Fla.), would remove an obstacle for foreign vessels to travel between U.S. ports to provide needed assistance. The Jones Act, a protectionist law passed in 1920, restricts the movement of foreign ships without a waiver.

"The Jones Act is currently preventing resources from being used in the monumental cleanup effort, and is hindering the ability of foreign vessels to assist Gulf communities in preventing oil from reaching their shores," Hutchison said. "In this time of crisis, we need to cut through the red tape and get all available assets on scene as quickly as possible."

The Water Assistance from International Vessels for Emergency Response (WAIVER) Act would temporarily suspend the Jones Act for vessels whose purpose is to assist in the cleanup. Its sponsors cite the Bush administration's decision to temporarily waive the Jones Act in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Supporters of the Jones Act contend the law isn't complicating matters for the oil spill clean. Deputy Maritime Administration David Matsuda last week testified that only one Jones Act waiver request had been received. Matusda defended the case-by-case waiver process for foreign vessels.

Regardless, the issue has become a public-relations headache for the Obama administration, already under attack from Democrats and Republicans for its handling of the cleanup. With the administration so far ruling out a blanket waiver, Republicans are seeking their own alternative.

"This bill will provide for a streamlined waiver process for any foreign vessel willing and able to help mitigate the impacts of the spill," LeMieux said. "We can no longer wait for the Administration to work through its bureaucracy. We need action now to clean our precious waters and protect our beaches from further intrusion of oil."

Last week it was LeMieux's Florida colleague, Rep. Corrine Brown (D), who told the Coast Guard: "We are in emergency mode and we need skimmers. We need the big ones. I understand they’re available in other countries, including Mexico and Norway. What is the process for the state to utilize these vessels from other countries?"

Even the Bush administration's former point man on the Jones Act waivers during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is weighing in with his advice. Keith Hennessey, who served as the deputy at the White House National Economic Council in 2005, recommended a 75-day blanket waiver until the relief well could be finished.

"A blanket waiver combined with a strong encouraging signal from government officials could, I think, spur significant private help, including from friends around the world," Hennessey wrote on his blog. "We'll never know unless the President tries."


Bluey directs the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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First appeared in The Washington Times