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What is the Jones Act, and why does Puerto Rico want it gone?

Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

Hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico is asking the White House for any help it can get.

But there's at least one request the Trump administration hasn't granted Puerto Rico: the suspension of a 97-year-old maritime law that says shipping between ports in the United States must be done by U.S.-owned, U.S.-flagged and U.S.-built ships operated by U.S. citizens.

Meet the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 -- more popularly known as the Jones Act -- which was championed at the time with nationalist rhetoric that was remarkably similar to President Donald Trump's.

The Jones Act entered the news this week after the federal government waived its restrictions to ease relief efforts for Texas and Florida after their recent hurricanes, but not for Puerto Rico, whose stranded residents are desperate for water, food, medicine and other basic supplies.

The protectionist economic law was designed to create American jobs in the years after World War I.

American politicians and military figures were worried that the country would fall behind on the high seas if its naval power was not nurtured during peacetime. A healthy commercial shipping fleet, known as the merchant marine, was seen as a key part of national defense.

Republican U.S. Sen. Wesley Jones of Washington state came up with the Merchant Marine Act, which the Los Angeles Times hailed as an "America first" shipping law that would "unshackle commerce" and make shipping vessels "100 Per Cent. American."

Other nations have similar policies, which are called cabotage laws. The Jones Act doesn't apply to cargo shipped between the mainland states and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but it does affect Puerto Rico, whose 3.4 million residents get a large portion of their goods via container ships from the mainland.

For years, Puerto Rican politicians have complained that forcing the U.S. island territory to rely on American-flagged ships -- even with foreign ships in abundance in its ports -- drives up the cost of basic goods there. The cost of living is higher on average compared with the mainland.

"Any protection raises costs. That is its purpose," Alan Deardorff, an international trade economist at the University of Michigan, told the Times in 2015. "Protection is sought by industries that are facing lower-cost competitors. It raises costs to consumers."

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