July 1, 2010 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Jones Act is no Laughing Matter

It is hard to find humor in the Gulf oil spill. But they’re trying at the White House.

Last week, President Barack Obama’s spokesman bantered about the Jones Act, the 1920 law that critics claim is holding back foreign help for the oil spill cleanup.

“Would you waive the Jones Act for Mr. Hayward if he chose to put a skimmer on his yacht?” asked NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd, referring to BP chief executive Tony Hayward’s appearance at a yacht race.

“I don’t think he would need it,” said White House spokesman Bill Burton, “because he’d be so far out at sea.”

The joke about the Jones Act illustrates how the 90-year-old law has captured Washington’s attention. It restricts shipping between points in the United States to vessels that have U.S. owners, U.S. crews and are built in U.S. shipyards.

For almost a month, critics have claimed that the Jones Act is an impediment to cleanup efforts, creating bureaucratic hurdles for foreign vessels that could help.

Its supporters, including the Obama administration, counter that it doesn’t apply because, in an oil spill emergency, the Coast Guard can use foreign ships without a Jones Act waiver, required to allow them within 3 miles of the U.S. coast.

In any case, one thing is certain: The Jones Act is no laughing matter for the U.S. maritime industry and the countries pressing to have it repealed.

Now is a good time to take another look at an outdated protectionist law that restricts shipping to U.S.-flagged vessels in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports.

Lobbyists on both sides have debated the law for years. But in the wake of the oil spill, there’s a full-fledged public relations battle on Capitol Hill and in foreign embassies.

The controversy erupted last month, when Dutch diplomat Geert Visser claimed that the Obama administration and BP had turned away an offer of assistance. When contacted at the Netherlands Consulate in Houston, Visser referred inquiries to his Washington embassy, which didn’t respond to questions.

Nonetheless, the news sparked an international outcry.

A week later, at a House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee hearing, the room was packed with suits representing various interests. The onlookers paid close attention as the panel’s Democrats criticized the Coast Guard and suggested that foreign vessels could be doing more to help.

When the State Department acknowledged it was slow to accept foreign aid, the Jones Act again became a target — though Tuesday the department accepted 22 offers from 12 countries and international organizations to operate in the Gulf without a waiver.

Of course, it didn’t help that the Obama administration was scrambling for a course correction in its handling of the spill. After all, critics charged, even the Bush administration had suspended the law in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“There is no logical reason,” said Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.), “why the administration is refusing offers of help from foreign skimmer vessels.”

“A Dutch skimmer that has the capacity to take 20,000 tons of oil out of the Gulf of Mexico was offered 48 days ago,” LeMieux said. “This offer, which is still ‘under consideration’ by the administration, is no longer a viable option because the skimmer has now been deployed for other uses. There is absolutely no sense of urgency by the administration to get this disaster under control.”

LeMieux is co-sponsoring legislation, introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) to waive the Jones Act temporarily. A similar measure in the House, introduced by Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), now has 14 bipartisan co-sponsors.

This legislative activity is keeping Jones Act supporters on their toes. Domestic maritime interests and labor unions are rallying to its defense.

TheOffshore Marine Service Association is among the busiest — fighting both Jones Act critics and the Obama administration over its offshore drilling moratorium. The group’s president, Ken Wells, testified at recent congressional hearings and maintains a website devoted to the Jones Act.

There’s also the Maritime Cabotage Task Force, which recently circulated talking points to rebut criticisms of the Jones Act. Its two-page document addresses the Dutch claim, as well as Bush’s 2005 waivers.

Unions also are making their case for preserving the protectionist law, though organized labor has only a small presence in the Gulf. Both the Seafarers International Union and the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots have defended the law as vital to U.S. shipping.

As long as the well continues to leak, neither side shows signs of relenting. And that’s a good thing.

It’s time for a fresh debate about the Jones Act. If there’s anything good that comes from the oil spill, it might be the repeal of a law that’s outlived its usefulness.

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

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Robert B. Bluey Vice President, Publishing and Editor in Chief
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First appeared in Politico