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Trump faces decision on new Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico

AS REPORTED BY MELANIE ZANONA FOR THE HILL

A 10-day shipping waiver President Trump granted to Puerto Rico that allows non-crewed U.S. ships to deliver aid to Puerto Rico expires on Saturday, setting up a new showdown between critics and supporters of the restrictions.

The White House has shown no indication that it plans to extend the Jones Act waiver as Puerto Rico struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria. Officials on the ground, where Trump and Vice President Pence both visited this week, say the biggest challenge for relief efforts is getting supplies distributed around Puerto Rico once they arrive.

But the hurricane-ravaged island has become a battleground in the ongoing debate over the Jones Act, with both sides amplifying their arguments ahead of the waiver’s expiration date this weekend.

“It should be used as an economic growth tool for Puerto Rico, and I’m asking for a temporary waiver, for one year,” Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) told The Hill Thursday.

The Jones Act, which was created in 1920 to strengthen the commercial U.S. shipping industry after World War I, only allows American-built and -operated vessels to make cargo shipments between U.S. ports.

But the obscure, century-old shipping law has come under a national spotlight this year following a string of hurricanes that have rocked the Gulf Coast and Caribbean.

It is not unusual for an administration to temporarily waive the Jones Act after natural disasters in order to help deliver gasoline and other critical supplies quickly and cheaply to devastated areas.

The Trump administration issued a weeklong waiver for Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, extending it for an additional week in September.

But the White House did not initially lift the shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, sparking widespread public outcry and fueling accusations that Trump is treating the U.S. island territory differently than the states hit by hurricanes.

After cautioning that a waiver might not be needed for Puerto Rico, however, the administration issued a 10-day waiver for the island — eight days after Maria made landfall.

The administration defended the delay, saying it did not receive a formal request from Puerto Rico’s governor for the waiver until the night before, though lawmakers in Congress had been pushing for an exemption all week.

The waiver expires on Sunday. A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security told The Hill that a formal request to extend the exemption has not been made, meaning it’s unlikely that Trump will extend it.

But critics of the law say they plan to keep highlighting the issue and pushing for a longer waiver, pointing out that the island could be rebuilding — and without power — for many months to come.

“Ten days is nothing,” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.).

The disaster has given a megaphone to the voice of Jones Act critics.

Velázquez, Gutiérrez and other lawmakers have spearheaded a letter calling on the White House to grant Puerto Rico a yearlong exemption from the shipping restrictions.

There has also been a push in Congress for new legislation.

House Democrats unveiled a bill that would allow Trump to waive the Jones Act if it would help humanitarian relief efforts. Currently, the law can only be waived if it’s in the interest of national security and if there aren’t enough U.S. ships to deliver cargo.

And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a long-time critic of the law, recently introduced legislation with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that would permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act.

At McCain’s request, the bill was put on the Senate calendar under a fast-track procedure that allows it to bypass the normal committee process, but it has not been scheduled for any floor time.

“While I welcome the Trump administration’s Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico, this short-term, 10-day exemption is insufficient to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria,” McCain said in a statement. “Our legislation would permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act, an antiquated, protectionist law that has driven up costs and crippled Puerto Rico’s economy.”

But even though critics of the law feel they have new momentum on their side, their efforts are likely to run into a mountain of opposition from the maritime and shipping industry, which has a powerful lobbying presence and fierce allies on Capitol Hill.

As calls to waive the Jones Act grew over the past week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation held an emergency “listening session” and then convened a hearing to let industry representatives have their own voices heard on the issue.

Defenders of the Jones Act argue that the law is necessary because it protects U.S. jobs, shipbuilders and national security.

And they also say that there are adequate domestic shipping capabilities available to assist with Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts.

“The humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico is being used by long-time opponents of the Jones Act to attack a law that promotes U.S. jobs and is critical to our national security,” said Larry I. Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

“Repealing this law will lead to the outsourcing of good-paying American jobs, paving the way for foreign shippers to cherry-pick crews from countries where labor and wage laws are lax. There has never been a need to repeal this law, and there is not one now.”

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