The ships that bring goods into Rhode Island from other parts of the United States are American vessels. That is because the Jones Act, passed in 1920, prohibits foreign vessels from transporting goods between American ports. The Department of Homeland Security issued waivers in September that allowed foreign ships to transport petroleum products to Puerto Rico. The Biden administration says waivers were needed to fuel Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona. Still, lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have criticized the decision.
House and senate questions
The ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee called the waivers unlawful and unnecessary, and the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said he was concerned and disappointed by the administration’s decision to suspend the Jones Act. The chairman and ranking member of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee went even further. The waivers are being used to take advantage of desperate people and profit from their suffering.
Vessels already at sea
Lawmakers are angry because waivers were issued to ships that had already left port and were on their way to Puerto Rico. These ships departed before any waivers were granted because their owners were not worried about Jones Act issues. A bipartisan group of House legislators claim that these companies were taking advantage of the system, and they called issuing waivers to ships at sea “novel and problematic.”
Jones Act waivers are issued when priorities change and getting goods to their destinations becomes more important than protecting American business interests. When the evidence suggests that foreign companies have taken advantage of the waiver process to profit from a natural disaster, lawmakers are right to raise objections and ask difficult questions.