As a former merchant mariner, I continue to follow issues relating to the shipping industry in general with a particular interest as to matters touching on the survival of America’s merchant marine. I was surprised to recently learn that Senator John McCain, a man whom I admire, has introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to repeal the Jones Act restrictions against foreign flag vessels carrying cargo between U.S. ports. His bill, entitled the Open America’s Waters Act of 2017, would allow foreign flag vessels to compete within U.S. waters for goods moving between American ports. I can’t help wonder why the Senator believes such a repeal is good policy, maritime or otherwise.
Surely, Senator McCain isn’t worried about an uneven playing field between American ships and their foreign competitors. He must certainly know that the overwhelming majority of ocean borne commerce between the U.S. and our foreign trading partners enters or leaves our shores on foreign flag vessels. Such vessels employ lower cost crews and their owners enjoy favorable tax treatment from their country of registry; hence, such vessels operate at cost levels which U.S. operators simply can’t match. Recognizing this reality, Congress has historically reserved waterborne commerce within the U.S. to American ships as a means of ensuring the survival of some semblance of an American merchant marine. Call it protectionism or what you will, the Jones Act does serve to ensure the existence of an American commercial fleet of vessels.
My own education and experience in things maritime persuades me that this is a good policy. A viable American merchant marine is an essential component of our national security, a fact that is generally ignored until it becomes necessary to find the ships to carry the goods to supply the troops who have been sent overseas to protect American interests.
Without the Jones Act’s restrictions against foreign flag vessels carrying domestic cargos, our already minimal merchant fleet risks further shrinkage to practically nonexistent levels. Happily, Senator McCain’s bill appears to have garnered almost no interest on Capitol Hill; no other senators have opted to cosponsor his legislation. It intrigues me, though, why an ex-Naval officer such as Senator McCain would target the very ships we may need one day to protect interests far distant from our shores.
For additional information, I recommend reading RealClear Defense’s article which expresses views contrary to those of Senator McCain.