As a former merchant seaman, I continue to pursue topics related to the shipping industry in general with a particular interest in issues related to the survival of the United States merchant marine. I was surprised to learn recently that Senator John McCain, a man I admire, has introduced legislation in the United States Senate to repeal the Jones Law restrictions against foreign-flagged vessels carrying cargo between US ports. His bill, titled United States Open Water Act of 2017, would allow foreign-flagged vessels to compete within US waters for goods moving between US ports. I can’t help but wonder why the senator thinks such a repeal is good policy, maritime or otherwise.
Senator McCain is certainly not concerned with an uneven playing field between American ships and their foreign competitors. You should certainly know that the vast majority of marine terminal trade between the US and our foreign trading partners enters or leaves our shores on foreign-flagged vessels. Such vessels employ lower cost crews and their owners enjoy favorable tax treatment from their country of registration; therefore, these vessels operate at cost levels that US operators simply cannot match. Recognizing this reality, Congress has historically reserved maritime trade within the US to US ships as a means of ensuring the survival of some semblance of a US merchant marine. Call it protectionism or whatever you want, the Jones Law it serves to ensure the existence of a US commercial fleet of vessels.
My own education and experience in maritime affairs convinces me that this is good policy. A viable American merchant marine is an essential component of our national security, a fact that is generally ignored. until it is necessary to find the ships to transport the goods to supply the troops that have been sent abroad to protect American interests.
Without him Jones Law restrictions against foreign-flagged vessels carrying domestic cargo, our already minimal merchant fleet runs the risk of further contracting to practically non-existent levels. Happily, Senator McCain’s bill appears to have sparked almost no interest on Capitol Hill; no other senator has chosen to co-sponsor his legislation. Yet I am intrigued by why a former naval officer like Senator McCain would target the same ships that we might one day need to protect interests far removed from our shores.
For additional information, I recommend reading the RealClear Defense article that expresses opinions contrary to those of Senator McCain.
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