In the wake of Hurricane Maria, pretty much the entire island of Puerto Rico is dark, hot and running out of supplies — quickly.
But if Puerto Rico wants supplies shipped from the mainland, it has to wait until American boats can reach its shores, thanks to a World War I-era shipping law that the Trump administration originally said it wasn't going to waive, then abruptly decided to lift on Thursday morning.
Trump's hesitation on to waive the Jones Act caused him a political headache these past few days. It fed into a narrative that the president is aloof to Puerto Rico's problems, especially since his administration lifted the law to help Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey in August and Irma this month. (Supporters of the Jones Act say the thinking within the shipping industry is that the Trump administration lifted the Jones Act prematurely for Hurricane Harvey and that Florida needed only a little bit of help from foreign-owned ships.)
Meanwhile, despite agitation from some powerful members of Congress to get rid of the law entirely so we don't keep having these debates after hurricanes, it's likely to stay on the books.
Here's what you need to know about the Jones Act.
What the Jones Act does: It requires that ships going from American coast to American coast be American — built, owned, flagged and crewed. That means goods going from the mainland to Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska and Guam — or even from Texas to New England — have to travel on U.S. ships, even if they're not the most economical transport or readily available.
Why that matters to hurricane relief: If there's a foreign ship nearby that has come from the United States and happens to have U.S. supplies that can help Puerto Rico, it can't dock in Puerto Rico. Only U.S. ships can.
David Lewis, vice president of Manchester Trade Ltd., said that foreign ships can't transport U.S. cargo from one U.S. point to another under the Jones Act. “The Coast Guard won't let them,” he said.
Top GOP politicians wanted the president to life it. Here's House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on Wednesday: "I'm very glad the president waived the Jones Act so we can get every ship we can to Puerto Rico."
Why the law exists: Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act in 1920, after World War I, when it was worried that the U.S. shipping industry was weak — too weak to, say, fight with German submarines that had sunk hundreds of U.S. ships.
Why the law still exists: Because there are powerful arguments on both sides. Puerto Rican officials have long despised the law, saying it makes their food and goods much more expensive than on the mainland. Politicians in Hawaii have argued that ranchers have even resorted to flying cows to the mainland rather than shipping them. Other opponents of the law say it forces New Englanders to pay more for propane, holds up salt supplies to clear snowstorms in New Jersey and raises electricity rates in Florida.
But its supporters say there is no evidence that the Jones Act leads to shortages of actual ships arriving in a disaster, and until recently it wasn't lifted routinely in natural disasters. Lewis said most fuel comes to Puerto Rico from foreign countries, on foreign ships, so lifting the Jones Act wouldn't help Puerto Rico on that front anyway.
The Department of Homeland Security agrees. It originally said getting more fuel to the island wouldn't address its main problem, which is ports damaged by the storm. Plus, barges, which make up a large part of U.S.-flagged ships, would deliver most humanitarian relief, the agency said.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who represents Northern California, said to the best of his understanding, ships arriving are not the problem, but rather the ability to transport what they're bringing.
“The problem is not that the containers [of aid and fuel] are not arriving in Puerto Rico,” he told The Fix. “It's that they're not getting off the dock.”
He said 6,000 shipping containers are en route or already at Puerto Rico with supplies that are estimated to deliver some 5 million tons of aid. He and Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) are holding an emergency hearing Thursday morning on how deliveries are arriving in Puerto Rico via U.S. ships.
The fight over the law in Congress: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been leading the charge to get rid of it. It's antiquated, it hinders free trade and it makes goods more expensive, he argues.
But the U.S. shipping industry likes the law because it guarantees them jobs. And that may be enough of a reason. “The power of this maritime lobby is as powerful as anybody or any organization I have run up against in my political career,” McCain said in 2014.
Trump himself said as much when chatting with reporters briefly Wednesday: “We're thinking” about lifting it, he said, but “a lot of people who are in the shipping industry don't want it” lifted.
Why it probably will exist for the foreseeable future: The Jones Act has long had powerful friends. For a while, shipyards in Mississippi were the main beneficiaries of the Jones Act, and a senator from Mississippi — Trent Lott (R) — happened to be the Senate majority leader.
Conversely, many who lose out under the Jones Act don't have a say. Puerto Rico, for example, has no voting power in Congress. Same with Guam.
“It's a classic residual program that has concentrated benefits to a few and widely diffused costs to the many,” said Scott Miller, an international trade expert with the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Why the Trump administration is taking heat: Fairly or not, wavering on lifting the Jones Act bolsters criticism that Trump cares a lot less about Puerto Rico than he does about U.S. citizens on the mainland.
Over the weekend, Trump tweeted more than a dozen times about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem and not once about the devastation in Puerto Rico. Trump even appeared to be unclear on how far away Puerto Rico is from the mainland United States, saying there's “a very big ocean” rescuers have to cross to get there.
And it gives his opponents another data point to use when they accuse Trump of being more empathetic to the plights of people who look like him.