Obama, the Jones Act and Big Labor

Andrew Langer President, Institute for Liberty
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The aftermath of the BP oil rig disaster has been front-and-center in the last month. Invariably, when discussing the response to the disaster, the following question is asked, “Why has this president and his administration dragged their collective feet in their response to this?” It’s not a question with an easy answer. One could speculate about vested interests, but that would only serve to fuel conspiracy theories and not help solve the actual problems. One could mention the glacial pace of bureaucracies in a general sense but, again, that line of reasoning doesn’t solve problems.

But even when discussing real solutions, like harnessing the free-market and putting competition to work in cleaning up the actual mess, or having BP issue an “X-Prize” type challenge, there is still a nagging question that remains: why hasn’t this president acted as the red-tape-cutter-in-chief, which ought to be his primary job in all of this.

The answer comes in the form of an obscure law called the Jones Act. A throwback to the days of American protectionism, the Jones Act is a piece of 1920s-era legislation that requires ships working in U.S. waters to be built here and crewed by Americans. This is why skimmers from the Persian Gulf, the heavy-duty ships that have proved themselves capable of cleaning up disasters like the one currently facing the Gulf, aren’t employed here doing the vital work for which they’re built. What’s more, it’s why they’re not on their way (which, considering the distance they’d have to cover, is in itself is no small feat).

The president, however, has the power to waive the Jones Act. His predecessor, the one so criticized for his failure to pull out all the stops in responding to Hurricane Katrina, did just that within days of that storm’s devastation. So why hasn’t President Obama taken the same measure?

Therein lies the rub. There is much talk about the political interests that have essentially prevented this administration from acting with common sense time and time again. It’s why many believe competitive market forces won’t be considered as options, even though competition, with little government involvement, would certainly contribute to cleanup efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. Are suspicions that foregoing market fixes is directly tied to protection of union jobs and, by extension, political allies? Using foreign technologies manned by foreign crews will, after all, necessarily keep union bosses from cash they so desperately need going into a tough election season.

This is the political cronyism of the worst sort. It is bad enough the president’s economic recovery plan was convoluted and weighted towards payback of labor unions; worse still are the bailouts being directed toward private and public sector union pensions. Now we have an entire region’s ecological and economic existence being held hostage to the president’s pro-Union myopia.

This is inexcusable.

The president needs to facilitate clean-up. He needs to immediately start cutting red tape and getting the federal government out of the way. First and foremost, he needs to immediately waive the Jones Act and get those foreign crews to the Gulf.

Millions of Americans, not just those suffering in the Gulf, are depending on this. Their voices are far more important than the ever-weakening unions constantly nipping at the president’s heels.

Andrew Langer is the president of the Institute for Liberty.