The island of Puerto Rico is devastated, with millions lacking power, infrastructure destroyed, homes damaged, and an entire year's worth of agricultural output essentially ruined. Like any disaster-struck place, it will be in need of supplies brought it from elsewhere in the country.
But getting goods from the US mainland to Puerto Rico is much more expensive than sending them to Texas or even to other Caribbean islands as a result of a century-old man-made disaster that's been crippling the island's economy for a long time.
Meet the Jones Act, an obscure 1920 regulation that requires that goods shipped from one American port to another be transported on a ship that is American-built, American-owned, and crewed by US citizens or permanent residents.
For most Americans, this isn't a big deal — it enriches a small number of American shipowners while introducing some weird distortions into the overall pattern of economic activity in the United States.
For the residents of the island of Puerto Rico, though, the Jones Act is huge. Basic shipments of goods from the island to the US mainland, and vice versa, must be conducted via expensive protected ships rather than exposing them to global competition. That makes everything Puerto Ricans buy unnecessarily expensive relative to goods purchased on either the US mainland or other Caribbean islands, and drives up the cost of living on the island overall.
And while it's fairly common for American presidents to temporarily suspend the Jones Act in the face of a natural disaster, the Trump administration hasn't yet done so for Puerto Rico.
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"A humanitarian crisis is about to explode in Puerto Rico," Nelson Denis, a former New York State Assembly member who's written a book on Puerto Rico, wrote in a New York Times op-ed on "The Law Strangling Puerto Rico." "But the consequences of Jones Act relief would be immediate and powerful."
More broadly, the island faces a staggering array of economic challenges beyond the hurricane, and the Jones Act serves as a major impediment to addressing any of them. If it can't be simply repealed altogether, exempting Puerto Rico from the law would be an easy way for Congress to boost the island's fortunes at no cost to the average American.