WASHINGTON — From former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to Arizona Sen. John McCain to junior members of the House of Representatives, conservative Republicans have accused President Barack Obama of failing to do all he can to help clean up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill because he hasn't waived a U.S. maritime law called the Jones Act.
That statute, established in 1920, requires that all goods transported between U.S. ports be carried on U.S.-flagged, U.S.-built and U.S.-owned ships crewed by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Critics say that's needlessly excluded foreign-flagged vessels that could have helped.
"It's a little shocking to me that a president that has such a multinational orientation as this president didn't immediately see the benefits of waiving the Jones Act and allowing all of these resources to come in," former House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, said in remarks to Newsmax.com, a conservative website.
Armey and the other Republican critics are wrong. Maritime law experts, government officials and independent researchers say that the claim is false. The Jones Act isn't an impediment at all, they say, and it hasn't blocked anything.
"Totally not true," said Mark Ruge, counsel to the Maritime Cabotage Task Force, a coalition of U.S. shipbuilders, operators and labor unions. "It is simply an urban myth that the Jones Act is the problem."
In a news briefing last week, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said he'd received "no requests for Jones Act waivers" from foreign vessels or countries. "If the vessels are operating outside state waters, which is three miles and beyond, they don't require a waiver," he said.
On Tuesday the State Department announced that new offers of aid would be accepted from 12 foreign countries and international organizations, but spokesman P.J. Crowley noted that booms donated by Mexico, Norway and Brazil had been in use since May 11,and that 24 foreign vessels from nine foreign countries already have been helping with the cleanup.
FactCheck.org, a nonprofit website operated by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, analyzed claims that failure to waive the Jones Act is blocking foreign-flagged vessels from assisting in the Gulf. It concluded last week that "In reality, the Jones Act has yet to be an issue in the response efforts."
The Deepwater Horizon response team reported in a news release June 15 that 15 foreign-flagged ships were participating in the oil spill cleanup, FactCheck.org said. "None of them needed a waiver because the Jones Act does not apply," it said.
That hasn't stopped conservatives from making the act a talking point to criticize Obama. James Carafano, a foreign policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy-research center, suggested on Fox News that labor unions are pressuring the Obama administration not to waive the act.
"They hate it when the Jones Act gets waived, and they pound politicians when they do that," Carafano said. "So is this a question of we're giving in to unions and not doing everything we can or is there some kind of impediment we don't know about?"
Michael Sacco, the president of the 80,000-member Seafarers International Union, called claims of organized-labor interference in the cleanup efforts "ridiculous."
"It is offensive for anyone to suggest that American maritime labor would hinder cleanup operations in the Gulf, in any way, shape or form," Sacco said in a statement on the union's website. "Speaking with one voice, U.S maritime labor and management have said that we wouldn't try to stand in the way of using foreign-flag assistance if no qualified, viable American-flag tonnage was available."
Some Democrats and union officials say that Republicans are trying to use the Gulf spill to kill what conservatives consider a protectionist law that hurts businesses. McCain introduced a bill last week to repeal the Jones Act, noting the emergency in the Gulf. He also touted the economic benefits of doing away with the act.
"The best course of action is to permanently repeal the Jones Act in order to boost the economy, saving consumers hundreds of millions of dollars," McCain said. "I hope my colleagues will join me in this effort to repeal this unnecessary, antiquated legislation in order to spur job creation and promote free trade."
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said the attacks on the Jones Act smacked more of "pushing a political agenda than any genuine interest in helping Gulf coast communities with their cleanup. We are already at the mercy of foreign competitors when it comes to oil; we should not add shipping to that list," he said two weeks ago.
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