Waiving the Jones Act

Should Obama waive restrictions on international shipping, as Bush did during Katrina? It's more complicated than you may think.

The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Bluey takes to Fox News to ask, “Why Won’t Obama Waive the Jones Act?

Hit piece to follow, right?   Nope.  Instead, we get a nuanced comparison of the differences between the Obama administration’s decision not to issue a waiver allowing foreign vessels to operate in U.S. ports and its predecessor’s to do just that during Katrina.

The key takeaways:

Some critics have suggested that Obama is protecting the pocketbooks of his union allies by keeping foreign vessels at bay. But several Jones Act experts told me that makes little sense because unions have minimal influence in the Gulf. Foreign competition, therefore, would do little to hurt their bottom line.

In addition, the Seafarers International Union, while supporters of the Jones Act, maintained good relations with the Bush administration. In 2000, the union donated $3,544 to candidate George W. Bush and nothing to Democrat Al Gore. Bush benefited with a $2,000 donation in 2004, while Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) received nothing. The union didn’t donate any money to candidate Obama in 2008.

And:

Jones Act expert Charlie Papavizas said the 2005 Katrina waiver, which lasted from Sept. 1 to Sept. 19, was used primarily to move cargo between ports, but it didn’t result in any new foreign ships in the region. “Twenty days is not enough time to reposition and do anything useful,” he said.

Mark Ruge, who works with the Maritime Cabotage Task Force, was even blunter: “After the fact, if you look at Katrina and ask, ‘What was the advantage to the United States of America by blanket waiving the Jones Act?’ The answer is nothing came of that — nothing that couldn’t have been accomplished with the usual process. It was just one more thing you could say you did.”

Okay, so why not just go ahead and issue the waiver, anyway? This thing is lasting a lot longer than Katrina.

The administration defends its stance by citing a well-established waiver process for foreign vessels. In short, a request to U.S. Customs and Border Protection prompts an inquiry to the Maritime Administration, which leads to a search of the U.S. fleet. If an American ship can provide the same services, the request is denied. Otherwise, the foreign vessel gets a waiver.

That’s reasonable enough. Still, it seems overly bureaucratic in the midst of a crisis.

Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) pressed the president on the Jones Act during a recent face-to-face meeting. LeMieux said the action would signal America’s allies that their help is wanted. Given the dire situation in the Gulf, what’s the harm?

Two other members from Florida, Reps. Corrine Brown (D) and John Mica (R), said their state is suffering while skimmers sit idle. At a hearing on
Thursday, Brown held up photos of vessels in Mexico and Norway, asking, “What is the process for the state to take advantage of skimmers from other countries?”

Mica trained his criticism on Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for failing to mobilize the entire American fleet. “U.S.-flag vessels have the capacity to bolster the current oil skimming and removal taking place in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen oil products wash up on the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida while vessels, which could have been pressed into service, sit idle. This is unacceptable.”

With the spill cleanup reaching its 63rd day, is it too late for a Jones Act waiver to have an impact? LeMiuex believes there’s still time for foreign vessels to help near the coast, given the uncertainty about how long the cleanup will last. He’s disappointed it has taken the administration so long to act.

This is mostly about optics, it seems — appearing to “do something.”  Still, I agree with the Florida reps here:  What would be the harm in getting whatever help we could from European countries?  More skimmers would seem obviously better than fewer.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Oil Spill, US Politics, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    Conservatives are playing a game of pretend, that foreign vessels aren’t already there (technically “weren’t there” on the 16th):

    “In response to such calls for more foreign help, the oil spill unified command on Tuesday streamlined the waiver process, adding that 15 foreign-flagged ships are already operating in the Gulf. More are on their way, according to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano”

    http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2010/0616/Jones-Act-Does-Gulf-oil-spill-cleanup-need-more-foreign-boats

    Sure, more is better, but most are pretending that none are there.

  2. john personna says:

    “The White House has “refused” international help in dealing with the oil spill.” fails the Truth-O-Meter:

    http://politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2010/jun/18/fact-checking-oil-spill/

  3. James Joyner says:

    John, from Politifact:

    But it’s also clear the United States has either struggled to act on offers of foreign aid, or that processing the requests has been delayed. Japan, Sweden and Norway are all prepared to send resources or manpower to the Gulf should the U.S. sign off. Other countries also are willing to help, but have been kept on the sidelines. Taking that into account, we’ll rate LeMieux’s statement Barely True.

    The administration rejected Norway’s help early, which is what got this meme started. They’ve since accepted some offers and rejected others.

  4. john personna says:

    Heh, whatever light there is between “fails” and “Barely True” then.

  5. James Joyner says:

    They rate it “barely true” because LeMieux’s charge was blanket and reality is that some vessels have been allowed.

    But the controversy exploded when it was learned that Obama had initially said no thanks to Norway, only to change his mind weeks later. Not the end of the world, of course, and his rationale was understandable if proven wrong as events unfolded.

  6. Duracomm says:

    Obama’s failure to waive the act is surprising, his fans persistent defense of this failure is not.

    Waiving the jones act is a simple process, won’t do any harm and good potentially help a great deal.

    Waiving the act would remove one of the bureaucratic obstacles the folks working on spill cleanup have had problems with. The example below shows why this would be a good thing.

    BP Oil Spill: Against Gov. Jindal’s Wishes, Crude-Sucking Barges Stopped by Coast Guard

    60 Days Into Oil Crisis, Gulf Coast Governors Say Feds Are Failing Them

    Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has spent the past week and half fighting to get working barges to begin vacuuming crude oil out of his state’s oil-soaked waters.

    By Thursday morning, against the governor’s wishes, those barges still were sitting idle, even as more oil flowed toward the Louisiana shore.

    So why stop now?

    “The Coast Guard came and shut them down,” Jindal said. “You got men on the barges in the oil, and they have been told by the Coast Guard, ‘Cease and desist. Stop sucking up that oil.'”

    But the Coast Guard ordered the stoppage because of reasons that Jindal found frustrating. The Coast Guard needed to confirm that there were fire extinguishers and life vests on board, and then it had trouble contacting the people who built the barges.

    The obama administration won’t waive the jones act to make it easier for foreign skimmers to work on the spill and then orders domestic skimmers to stop picking up oil.

    Brilliant!

  7. john personna says:

    I’d think they might rate it “barely true’ because of the foreign vessels already active.

  8. JKB says:

    Wait, the administration’s response to why they aren’t facilitating foreign help is to cite the DMV process a foreign vessel owner has to take if he wants to enter into business in US shipping. That’s leadership? That is ‘not resting”? If someone applies via our obscure multi-line process, we’ll get right on it when Betty returns from vacation.

    A little note to the idiots in government – in a crisis, your job is to run blocker for those who can solve the crisis. You must get your backside out of your chair and figure out how you can clear the road for those who can attack the problem. True, it is scary and collapses your paper empire to be a facilitator rather than a speed bump but it’s a crisis. When it is over, you’ll be able to go back to your TPS reports.

    Ford: [about Vogons] They don’t think, they don’t imagine, most of them can’t even spell, they just run things. And if we don’t hitch a ride soon, you won’t need the guide to tell you just how unpleasant they can be. They already destroyed a planet today, and that always makes them a little… eeee!

  9. john personna says:

    I wonder what part of “15 foreign-flagged ships are already operating in the Gulf” is so hard to understand.

    Ah well, it probably isn’t understanding that is the problem. It’s cognitive biases that prevent it from staying in the brain long. “15 ships? what? never heard such a thing!”

  10. anjin-san says:

    his fans persistent defense of this failure is not.

    Most Obama supporters I have talked to feel it was a boneheaded move. I agree. Don’t let that take you off script. though.

    Worth noting that Bill Orielly was hard pressed not to laugh in Palin’s face recently during her rant on the subject.

  11. anjin-san says:

    I don’t remember all this thunder from the right when Bush refused the offer of additional AWACS coverage from our friends in Europe after 9/11.

    Now, suddenly the socialistic Euro-weenies that the right has been ridiculing for decades are our saviors…

  12. anjin-san says:

    It’s also worth noting that Jindal is a proven lair when it comes to disaster efforts, so I would like to see a bit of independent documentation of his claims.

  13. James Joyner says:

    I don’t remember all this thunder from the right when Bush refused the offer of additional AWACS coverage from our friends in Europe after 9/11.

    I don’t recall the controversy, in all honesty. But, aside from the first few hours’ worth, Bush’s response to 9/11 was widely lauded in the early weeks and months. He wasn’t being criticized because he seemed in command.

    That’s just not the case for Obama and the Gulf spill.

    Granted, I think there’s very little more that Obama could have done that he’s not doing. The president has more tools to deal with a terrorist attack than an oil spill. But “Waive the Jones Act” has emerged as a visible symbol of something that Obama could actually and easily have done that he hasn’t.

  14. john personna says:

    But “Waive the Jones Act” has emerged as a visible symbol of something that Obama could actually and easily have done that he hasn’t.

    15 ships? What 15 ships?

  15. James Joyner says:

    15 ships? What 15 ships?

    It’s a really big coastline. 15 ships is pretty negligible.

  16. Trumwill says:

    Anyone have any estimations of how many ships would be there if the Jones Act had been repealed early on?

  17. john personna says:

    “It’s a really big coastline. 15 ships is pretty negligible.”

    Gawd that’s sick. Of the 447 total ships out there, the 15 foreign ships should not be thought of as proof that there is no ban, but in terms of the entire coast.

    “Anyone have any estimations of how many ships would be there if the Jones Act had been repealed early on?”

    I don’t know, more than 447?

  18. Duracomm says:

    anjin-san said,

    Most Obama supporters I have talked to feel it was a boneheaded move. I agree. Don’t let that take you off script. though.

    I don’t need a script I just have to watch john personna flail about defending the indefensible.

  19. anjin-san says:

    I don’t need a script I just have to watch john personna flail about defending the indefensible.

    Reasonable observers from either party agree that Obama made a dumb, but fairly trivial mistake. It’s pretty clear that during a serious crisis for our country, your agenda is simply to attack the President by any possible means, and for strictly partisan reasons.

    That sounds kinda indefensible to me.

  20. Duracomm says:

    anjin-san said,

    Reasonable observers from either party agree that Obama made a dumb, but fairly trivial mistake.

    Need cite.

    The next question that is more that reasonable to ask is if obama can’t handle what you call a fairly trivial issue, what are the bigger issues he may be screwing up.

    It’s pretty clear that during a serious crisis for our country, your agenda is simply to attack the President by any possible means, and for strictly partisan reasons.

    Nice attempt at mind reading but there is also the offhand chance that having witnessed the pounding the gulf coast has taken since katrina i’m of the mind that those folks deserve competent emergency response efforts.

    I’ve never been a big fan of it is the job of the president to do something to fix the mess mindset.

    On the other hand I think it is perfectly reasonable to expect presidents to not make recovery more difficult.

    Not waiving the jones act is a big flaming red flag of an indicator that administration actions may be hindering recovery efforts.

    That sounds kinda indefensible to me.

    Right back at ya.

  21. anjin-san says:

    is if obama can’t handle what you call a fairly trivial issue, what are the bigger issues he may be screwing up.

    More partisan hyperbole. All human being make mistakes, and for that matter, how much do we know about Obama’s direct participation in this particular decison?

    The spill is a vast, complex problem, and this is simply one facet of it, and not a pivotal one at that. The cleanup is a huge effort to deal with an unprecedented disaster. Do you actually think no mistakes are going to be made in the effort? Where is your outrage at BP? Guess your sympathy for the folks on the gulf does not extend to holding a corporation accountable for trashing their backyard in the quest for a better ROI.

    To claim Obama “can’t handle it” is simply one more indefensible attack on a President in the middle of a crisis.

  22. Duracomm says:

    anjin-san, trimming my quote to help make his point said,

    is if obama can’t handle what you call a fairly trivial issue, what are the bigger issues he may be screwing up.

    my actual quote was

    The next question that is more that reasonable to ask is if obama can’t handle what you call a fairly trivial issue, what are the bigger issues he may be screwing up.

    Part of the problem is we have lots of assertions, but no evidence, from folks like anjin-san that not waiving the jones act is a trivial issue.

    anjin said,

    The spill is a vast, complex problem, and this is simply one facet of it, and not a pivotal one at that. The cleanup is a huge effort to deal with an unprecedented disaster. Do you actually think no mistakes are going to be made in the effort? Where is your outrage at BP? Guess your sympathy for the folks on the gulf does not extend to holding a corporation accountable for trashing their backyard in the quest for a better ROI.

    I agree with your statement that I put bold emphasis on. I understand that in a disaster like this mistakes are going to be made. I apply that understanding to obama, bp, and bush after katrina. You seem to want to apply that standard only to obama.

    One of my earlier statements

    I’ve never been a big fan of it is the job of the president to do something to fix the mess mindset.
    On the other hand I think it is perfectly reasonable to expect presidents to not make recovery more difficult.

    For the first couple of weeks you can understand obama not waiving the jones act.

    At day 60 plus of the spill obama’s failure to waive the jones act is politically damaging to obama and it keeps another bureaucratic delay to spill response in position.

    anjin-san, trimming his original crop job on my quote a little more says,

    To claim Obama “can’t handle it” is simply one more indefensible attack on a President in the middle of a crisis.

    My original quote was

    The next question that is more that reasonable to ask is if obama can’t handle what you call a fairly trivial issue, what are the bigger issues he may be screwing up.

    Cropping that quote to “can’t handle it” is an illustration of the contortions obama supporters are having to go through in the process of defending obama’s indefensible decision to not waive the jones act.