One hundred years ago today, President Woodrow Wilson enacted a law that would become known as the Jones Act. Its purpose was to help the U.S. shipping industry recover after World War I. Yet few could have predicted how vital it would become to our national security and economic prosperity a full century later — especially during a pandemic.
The Jones Act requires that all vessels carrying goods between two U.S. points be American-built, -owned, -crewed and -flagged. This policy provides stability to the U.S. maritime industry and helps to sustain 650,000 American jobs, resulting in $150 billion in economic benefits each year. Most importantly, the Jones Act advances our national security by helping maintain a vibrant domestic shipbuilding industry and maritime workforce. Our shipbuilders supply the military with warships, and U.S. mariners play a key role in transporting military personnel and equipment overseas in times of crisis.
Our nation has always depended heavily upon maritime commerce. Our land is knit together by a vast network of sea and river ports, where waterborne vessels deliver food, natural resources and manufactured goods to market. These supply lines are important in every season, but they have become especially crucial during the COVID-19 crisis. Seaports have enabled front-line workers to continue bringing essential goods to our communities, as well as lifesaving ventilators, testing supplies and personal protective equipment to doctors and nurses treating patients.
This critical movement of goods has been secured by the Jones Act.
To imagine life without this law, consider the risks we would face if foreign-owned companies were allowed to conduct our domestic trade during this pandemic. Foreign companies would be able to influence the flow of domestic goods and resources that are keeping our economy afloat. Thousands of now-secure American jobs throughout our shipbuilding and maritime workforces would be threatened, and foreign governments could gain even more undue leverage over our economy.
The pandemic has already exposed our nation’s over-dependence upon Chinese medical supplies. We also depend too heavily upon foreign shipping in global trade, with 97 percent of all U.S. overseas commerce being conducted by foreign-flagged carriers. Losing the Jones Act would mean ceding our domestic maritime economy to China and other foreign-flagged competitors, making us more vulnerable during times of crisis.
The Jones Act is also an important asset to our military. U.S.-crewed vessels around the world expand our military’s horizon by serving as the eyes and ears of our nation, and U.S. mariners, shipyards and commercial vessels play a vital role in keeping our military well-supplied. Losing these assets and having to rely on foreign competitors to move our military would hurt our ability to project power during a time of war or national emergency.
These national security concerns are why the Jones Act continues to enjoy broad support in Congress. Indeed, military leaders have consistently described the Jones Act as crucial to national security. As the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over maritime matters, we are committed to preserving the Jones Act.
Some voices continue to call for the repeal of the law. However, there is little reason to believe outsourcing our shipping industry to foreign nations would benefit American consumers or workers. If foreign-flagged vessels were allowed in our domestic sea trade, they would still have to comply with U.S. laws, including wage, tax, immigration, and a host of other policies and regulations. These compliance costs would still be passed down to consumers.
The Jones Act has been a pillar of American security and prosperity for a century. With the pandemic at hand, it is more valuable than ever to our security and economic interests. We are committed to seeing the Jones Act preserved for years to come.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., is chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, on which Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., serves as ranking member. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on which Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., serves as ranking member.