Lawmakers have offered a slew of bills that would alter U.S. maritime law, but not every proposal is a direct outgrowth of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In June, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced the Open America’s Water Act, which would repeal the Jones Act — a key maritime statute that addresses the rights of injured seamen and establishes a coastal shipping rule known as “cabotage.” The rule requires that all ships bringing cargo from one U.S. port to another must be registered in the United States and be crewed by Americans. The rules are intended to protect the domestic shipping industry from foreign competition.
McCain has been openly critical of the Jones Act since the 1990s, charging that cabotage hinders free trade and increases the cost of shipping, particularly to places such as Alaska and Hawaii that rely heavily on goods arriving by sea.
“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 when introducing the bill last month. “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.”
McCain also cited the Deepwater Horizon spill as impetus for his bill. A number of Republican politicians claimed in June that the Jones Act had blocked foreign-flagged oil spill-response vessels such as skimmers from helping with the cleanup. That charge was discredited by government officials who noted that they granted waivers for a number of foreign vessels.
“McCain and his supporters have wanted to get rid of cabotage and open up shipping to all for awhile,” said Robert Jarvis, who teaches maritime law at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law Center. “When you have a discussion about cleaning up one area of the law, why not use that to change other parts, as well?”
Michael Daly, an attorney at Portland, Maine-based Pierce Atwood who chairs the American Bar Association’s admiralty and maritime law committee, agreed that McCain’s bill isn’t directly related to the oil spill. Still, he said, the bill would represent a significant change.
“We would all be at sea if the Jones Act was revoked,” Daly said.
The Open America’s Water Act is opposed by the Maritime Cabotage Task Force, a consortium of shipping companies. However, a task force spokesman said, the group is confident that the bill won’t go forward.
“The current maritime regime is going to remain the law of the land,” said Glen Nekvasil, spokesman for the task force.
Although legislators have moved quickly on some of the proposed oil spill legislation, the Open America’s Water Act has not been fast-tracked. It was introduced on June 23 and was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The committee has yet to take up the bill.
Karen Sloan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.