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Opportunities in the oil spill, Part 1: The Jones Act

June 23, 2010 - Mike Maneval

While it was White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who noted political leaders shouldn't let crises "go to waste," opponents of the administration have been as willing to heed the advice as the administration itself.

In the wake of the unfolding gulf oil spill crisis, a common complaint of many of President Obama's most persistent critics has stemmed from a law signed in the 1920s named the Jones Act.

Critics of the Jones Act like Dick Armey, Mother Jones magazine reports, fulminate over Obama's relunctance to suspend the Jones Act in its entirety "from day one." Columnist Deroy Murdock joins Armey in sneering at the law as "trap(ping) potentially helpful boats in overseas ports."

Of course, setting aside this "opportunity" and rejoining reality, one discovers, as reported by Stephanie Mencimer in that Mother Jones article, that Gen. Thad Allen, leading Coast Guard efforts in combatting the spill, confirmed on June 15 that 15 foreign ships were assisting in cleanup and containment work in the Gulf. And as Murdock himself begrudgingly acknowledges, the administration has granted case-by-case exemptions from the Jones Act before and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has indicated any necessary waiver would be granted as needed.

It is likely closer to the truth that the leading factor hindering foreign assistance is that the entities offering "assistance" are thinking about "opportunities" themselves. As the Associated Press reported on June 18, nearly every offer of assistance from foreign sources has come with strings attached. "These offers are not typically offers of aid," Coast Guard Lt. Erik Halvorson told the AP. "Normally, they are offers to sell resources to BP or the U.S. government."

So why the sudden focus on the Jones Act, which requires the shipping of materials between U.S. ports be done by U.S.-flagged ships? The measure remains popular with maritime unions whose wages are protected from foreign depreciation of their work's value. And just as the financial upheaval at General Motors and Chrysler in 2008 and 2009 presented an opportunity to assail compensation levels for assembly-line workers, a political movement that wants America's middle-class to be more lowly-paid sees in the oil spill an opportunity to press for a policy change that would lower maritime salaries.



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