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S. 1894 (115th): A bill to exempt Puerto Rico from the coastwise laws of the United States (commonly known as the “Jones Act”).

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and left millions without electricity, as the only Category 5 hurricane to ever strike the territory. But critics say that an obscure law from 1920 prevented disaster relief from being as effective as it could have been.

The Puerto Rico Humanitarian Relief Act would overturn that law.


The law is popularly called the Jones Act, formally named the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. It requires that all goods transported on water between U.S. ports be on American ships, for which both the owners and crew must be American citizens. In the present day, that means such ships cost much more — often to the tune of billions of dollars in aggregate.

The protectionist measure was instituted in 1920 to boost U.S. ships in the face of increasing competition from European submarines. It was somewhat controversial even at the time, with a relatively close vote of 145–120 in the House. (Although it passed by a much larger 40–11 in the Senate.) But many believe the law has outlived its usefulness in the modern era.

What the bills do

The bills would permanently end the Jones Act for Puerto Rico by allowing any ships into Puerto Rico without having to pay tariffs or reroute to the closest mainland U.S. port Jacksonville, Florida.

In fact, the Trump Administration temporarily granted Puerto Rico a 10-day waiver from the Jones Act immediately following the hurricane, seemingly recognizing the barrier the law had been creating for disaster relief. But the administration did not extend the waiver past 10 days, despite many calls to do so.

Several other U.S. territories have been granted exemptions from the Jones Act, including the U.S. Virgin Islands — but not, for whatever reason, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has 3.3 million people, a higher population than 21 states.

The Senate version was introduced on September 28 by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), labelled S. 1561 in the Senate. The House version was introduced on October 5 by Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL5), labelled H.R. 3966 in the House.

What supporters say

Supporters argue the bill is a remnant of a century-old trade dispute, which now harms millions of American citizens.

“I have long advocated the repeal of the Jones Act, an archaic and burdensome law that hinders free trade, stifles the economy, and ultimately harms consumers,” Sen. McCain said in a press release. “My legislation would eliminate this regulation, freeing American shippers from the requirement that they act against their own business interests.”

“By allowing U.S. shippers to purchase affordable foreign-made carriers, this legislation would reduce shipping costs, make American farmers and businesses more competitive in the global marketplace, and bring down the cost of goods and services for American consumers.”

What opponents say

Opponents — many of them from the shipbuilding industry — counter that the existing law has served its purposes.

“The U.S. maritime fleet delivers the quickest and most dependable service between Puerto Rico and the mainland, transporting goods in less than three days to ensure a consistent supply chain and allowing consumers to enjoy free shipping from online retailers,” TOTE Maritime’s Vice President of Caribbean Services Eduardo Pagan wrote in a USA Today op-ed

“If the Jones Act were hurting Puerto Rico, I would be opposed to it. In fact, Jones Act providers are central to helping Puerto Rico rebuild, and they will continue to reliably deliver cargo long after TV cameras have departed.”

Odds of passage

The Senate version has three cosponsors, all Republicans. McCain requested that the bill be put on a “fast track,” a special provision for bypassing a committee vote before receiving a full Senate vote — yet it still has not received a full Senate vote after several months.

The House version has a bipartisan mix of 14 cosponsors: 13 Republicans and one Democrat, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY7). It awaits a possible vote in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

McCain has also introduced a bill in the Senate to overturn the Jones Act entirely, not just for Puerto Rico — including other affected areas such as Alaska and Hawaii. That bill, the Open America’s Waters Act, was introduced in July prior to Hurricane Maria.

Last updated Dec 23, 2017. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Sep 28, 2017.

This bill revises the coastwise laws, commonly known as the Jones Act, that govern domestic transportation of merchandise or passengers by vessels. The Jones Act requires that vessels transporting merchandise or passengers between Puerto Rico and other U.S. ports be built in the United States, at least 75% owned by U.S. citizens, and mostly crewed by U.S. citizens. Jones Act requirements are currently waived with respect to vessels transporting passengers between Puerto Rico and U.S. ports. This bill permanently exempts vessels transporting merchandise between Puerto Rico and other U.S. ports from those requirements.