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Allow American Workers to Help Rebuild Puerto Rico

** UPDATE: On Thursday the Trump administration announced it would temporarily waive the Jones Act to ease hurricane aid shipments.**

As Puerto Ricans dive into the massive clean-up effort following Hurricane Maria, they’re already looking to fellow Americans on the mainland for assistance.

However, American workers and businesses are prevented from playing much of a role in the reconstruction unless President Trump overrules the Department of Homeland Security and grants an extensive waiver of the commerce-killing Jones Act.

The Jones Act of 1920 mandates that all shipping between U.S. ports be carried out by American-built and American-crewed vessels. As a result, Puerto Rico faces bigger effective trade barriers with the mainland U.S. than even most foreign countries.

Federal disaster aid is already arriving to the island, but the Jones Act’s restrictions mean that a significant portion of the money will be redirected to foreign suppliers even though mainland U.S. suppliers would be more efficient.

And while Trump issued a temporary waiver of the Jones Act right after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma struck, the Department of Homeland Security announced last week that it would not permit a Jones Act waiver in Puerto Rico’s case. It explained its decision by arguing that the Jones Act fleet is large enough for carrying out the current task.

But the Jones Act fleet already imposes much higher shipping costs on Puerto Rico than on other nearby islands, and it operates close to capacity in non-crisis times. To involve mainland American workers and businesses in Puerto Rico’s recovery requires a rapid acceleration in speed and capacity—something well beyond the capacity of America’s moribund crony capitalist shippers.

Until Trump overturns Homeland Security’s decision, demand for fuel, concrete, steel, copper wire, vehicles, and building machinery will skyrocket in Puerto Rico, while American suppliers are left out in the cold. Puerto Ricans will have no option but to overpay for rebuilding supplies (not to mention food and medicine) or purchase them from other countries.

This is flagrantly unfair, especially as the U.S. Virgin Islands right next door have been exempt from the Jones Act since 1920.

Puerto Rico’s critically-damaged energy sector is dependent on Venezuelan oil imports, meaning they’re supporting a dictatorship that uses that revenue to inflame anti-American sentiment in Latin America. If Puerto Rico were issued a waiver, the island could switch to cheaper, cleaner natural gas from sources like Pennsylvania and Texas.

Given the magnitude of the devastation in Puerto Rico and the multi-year rebuilding effort ahead, the Trump administration should issue a waiver from the Jones Act for Puerto Rico for as long as it takes for the territory to rebuild while using federal aid dollars. And to allow a transition from foreign oil to American natural gas, Congress should consider passing a permanent exemption from the Jones Act for all fuel tankers.

** UPDATE: On Thursday the Trump administration announced it would temporarily waive the Jones Act to ease hurricane aid shipments.**

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Emery Reddy