April 29, 2019 3:25PM

Rep. John Garamendi’s Questionable Defense of the Jones Act

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the problem with Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) isn't so much that he is uninformed, it's just that he knows so many things that aren't so. That, at least, is the impression one is left with after reading the California congressman's latest op-ed in defense of the Jones Act which is replete with errors, half-truths, and contradictions. 

Disturbingly, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's Readiness Subcommittee fudges even basic facts. In the op-ed's fourth paragraph, for example, Rep. Garamendi claims there are only 81 U.S.-flag oceangoing vessels. The latest data from the U.S. Maritime Administration, however, shows 180 such ships.

Rep. Garamendi later warns about the dangers of employing foreign-flag ships to transport supplies and equipment for the U.S. military, claiming that during the 1991 Gulf War "The foreign crews on thirteen vessels mutinied, forcing those ships to abandon their military mission." But that's not true. The United States Transportation Command's official history of its performance in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm makes no mention of mutinies or mutineers and says that only two ships, the Trident Dusk and the Banglar Mamata, failed to deliver their cargo. Eleven other ships expressed some hesitation but did, in fact, fulfill their missions, and the Transportation Command says crews on foreign flag ships "on the whole proved dependable" and were "overall, reliable."

Furthermore, Rep. Garamendi's invocation of these foreign flag bulkers is curious, as the Jones Act is commonly presented as avoiding this very kind of foreign dependence. Plainly it is not accomplishing this goal. Indeed, another item mentioned by the Transportation Command's report is that the United States was desperately short of ships that it twice asked the Soviet Union to borrow one of theirs.

The op-ed also suffers from other curious leaps of logic and seeming contradictions. 

Rep. Garamendi, for example, hits back at criticisms the Jones Act is outdated and harmful by noting that "Ninety-one U.N. member states comprising 80 percent of the world’s coastlines have cabotage laws protecting domestic maritime trade." But this observation does nothing to refute the law's critics or prove that the Jones Act is somehow useful. Notably, countries that have moved to loosen their cabotage laws such as the Philippines and New Zealand (see page 6) have experienced positive results. 

In addition, Rep. Garamendi fails to mention that there is considerable variation in the severity of these cabotage laws. Only a handful of countries, for example, have Jones Act-style domestic-build requirements. Indeed, the Jones Act is such an extreme outlier that the World Economic Forum has deemed it the world's most restrictive example of a cabotage law. And if the commonplace nature of cabotage laws somehow validates the Jones Act, then by the same logic doesn't the unusual nature of its U.S.-build requirement suggest that this provision should be discarded?

Rep. Garamendi also claims that repealing the Jones Act would undermine U.S. economic development, but says that eliminating the law would lead to marine transportation along U.S. coastlines to be outsourced to "the cheapest foreign bidder." Well, which is it? Would the repeal of the Jones Act undermine growth or would it lead to foreign providers of shipping offering their services at cheap prices, thus saving Americans money? Unless Rep. Garamendi believes that economic prosperity is derived from higher costs and reduced purchasing power, these two statements are in direct conflict with each other. 

In his concluding paragraph, meanwhile, Rep. Garamendi calls for maintaining the Jones Act as necessary to preserve the United States' status as a "great maritime power," but this description seems in conflict with some of his other recent comments. Just last month he bemoaned the country's "dwindling merchant fleet" and in a recent letter to the Trump administration said the U.S.-flag international fleet was "in a state of precipitous decline." He has also admitted the sad state of U.S. commercial shipbuilding, stating at the Brookings Institution last month that it has been reduced to "mostly small shipyards" and a "few large ones." How do these statements comport with being a great maritime power? Or the Jones Act as a public policy success?

There is a final item that rankles. Rep. Garamendi declares the Jones Act to be the "lifeblood" of a U.S. maritime trade that "supports 650,000 jobs and almost $100 billion in annual economic impact." His figures are almost certainly based on a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers for the pro-Jones Act Transportation Institute. Notably, no copy of this report has ever been publicly released, making its findings impossible to verify or critique. That Jones Act supporters repeatedly cite a report and then refuse to release it for independent study should raise eyebrows.

The American people deserve an honest discussion about the Jones Act. Unfortunately, defenders of this law don't seem intent on giving them one.