Early this morning, the Trump administration approved a federal waiver of the Jones Act for 10 days. The waiver covers products to be shipped from U.S. coastwise points to Puerto Rico. There is already discussion that the waiver will be extended by the administration for more than 10 days, and the action has given a platform to traditional anti-Jones Act voices, like Sen. John McCain, to now call for a full repeal of the Jones Act. Adams and Reese has been asked by several interested members of Congress to prepare a letter to the Administration asking for details on why the Jones Act was waived, given that there has been repeated demonstration of adequate US shipping capacity under existing Jones Act requirements.
As of Wednesday, the Department of Transportation was arguing that the Jones Act shouldn’t be waived for Puerto Rico, saying, “Waiving the Jones Act now will not provide any additional relief to the hurricane victims on the island. The most pressing logistics challenge is how to get cargo to people in need after it has arrived in port. There is currently a shortage of trucks and drivers to move containers from the ports to inland distribution centers."
Major news organizations have covered the Jones Act extensively and have framed it as an impediment to getting relief supplies to the island.
The fact remains, however, that there are no restrictions on foreign vessels bringing supplies to Puerto Rico – in fact there are containers from a foreign-flag vessel currently sitting in the San Juan port. The issue now is moving the more than 9,500 containers stacked up throughout the island.
The appointment of Army Brig. Gen. Richard Kim, the deputy commanding general of U.S. Army North, to coordinate operations on the ground, is expected to ease this logistics issue. In addition, the Pentagon is sending more aircraft, a hospital ship and a variety of specialized units all focused on surging relief efforts.
The Pentagon also announced today that it would be appointing 3-star Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan to lead all military hurricane efforts in Puerto Rico. Buchanan is expected to arrive Thursday as the military will focus on trying to improve distribution networks of relief supplies.
The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee held an emergency listening session this morning to discuss the Jones Act and Puerto Rico. In attendance were Duncan Hunter (R-CA), John Garamendi (D-CA), Garret Graves (R-LA), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who all expressed frustration with the Administration’s waiver. Congressmen Hunter and Garamendi will be including an additional Jones Act panel during a previously scheduled hearing next Tuesday.
Sen. McCain and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) today introduced legislation to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones act. Additionally, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL), announced his intention to provide “extended” relief from the Jones Act in Puerto Rico.
The House Natural Resources Committee has called a hearing next week to discuss rescue and recovery in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Jones Act is expected to be a main point of discussion during this hearing.
The Congress is expected to consider an aid package for the island in October. In addition to relief funding, there is likely to be Jones Act related language in both the underlying legislation and potential amendments.