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BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Hawaii’s Democratic Congressional delegates, including Hawaii Senior Senator Daniel Inouye, D-HI and Congress Member Mazie Hirono, D-2-HI, today slammed an idea forwarded yesterday by Republican Congress Member Charles Djou and several government watchdog groups, saying the idea of suspending the Jones Act to allow foreign aid in clean up of BP Oil spill is surprising and unnecessary.

Tuesday night, Hawaii’s newly elected Congress Member, Charles Djou, R-HI, District 1, called on President Barack Obama to suspend the Jones Act, or the federal law that mandates that all goods shipped between U.S. ports be transported in U.S.-built, U.S. owned and U.S. manned ships, so that foreign vessels can help with the BP oil clean up.

Djou said yesterday: “I agree with the President that our nation’s top priority in addressing the Gulf accident is to stop the leak, clean up the mess and hold BP accountable. I am disappointed, however, that the President has failed to waive the Jones Act for foreign ships, who want to assist in the clean-up efforts. There is no good reason to turn away international help in responding to this environmental catastrophe.”

Several other government watchdog groups and think tanks had already promoted this idea, saying President George W. Bush suspended the Jones Act during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, so foreign aid could be accepted, and Obama should do the same.

Obama can issue a waiver, but so far has refused to do so, and he made no mention of the Jones Act during his Tuesday night address from the Oval office.

But Hawaii’s Senior Senator, Hawaii’s most prominent defender of the Jones Act, says he was “taken aback” by the suggestion that we suspend the Jones Act to bring in foreign ships to deal with the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf.

“That is not necessary,” Inouye says. “American vessels from the Navy, Coast Guard, state and county governments are working with private citizens and foreign vessels in support of the clean-up effort.”

Inouye says to suggest that we suspend the Jones Act to allow foreign ships into the Gulf “is more about pushing a political agenda than any genuine interest in helping Gulf coast communities with their clean up.”

“We are already at the mercy of foreign competitors when it comes to oil, we should not add shipping to that list,” Inouye says.

Congress Member Mazie Hirono, D-HI, District 2, who agrees with Inouye, says Djou’s claims are flawed because there are already 15 foreign-flagged vessels supporting the effort to clean up the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

In a statement issued to the media, Hirono says: “According to information provided by National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen, no Jones Act waivers have been granted because none of these vessels require such a waiver to conduct these emergency operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Should such a waiver be deemed necessary, an expedited process is already in place.”

Djou responded to Hirono saying: “While some members may be satisfied with the situation in the Gulf, I agree with the President that we should ‘do whatever is necessary’ to address the Gulf disaster. I believe the Administration should provide a blanket waiver as allowed under the Jones Act rather than follow bureaucratic formalities. In times of crisis, we should accept help from our friends, even if they are from foreign countries. Protectionism isn’t the answer especially in times of disaster.”

He added in a statement that the 90-year old Jones Act blocks foreign vessels from operating in U.S. waters and multiple foreign nations including Mexico, Canada, and Belgium have offered to assist the U.S. in cleaning up the BP oil spill disaster, but have been prevented from doing so because of the Jones Act.  “European companies with advanced environmental clean-up technologies could dramatically speed the Gulf coast clean up.  The prior administration had waived the Jones Act to help with relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.”

U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka, D-HI, could not be reached for comment.

U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, D-HI, did not yet respond to a follow up question as to whether he supported Bush in 2005 during his suspension of the Jones Act or whether he opposed it. Hirono was not in office at that time.

In a related story, Djou is pushing for an exemption for Hawaii under the Jones Act because he says the law raises the cost of living and goods shipped to the state by a substantial margin. He plans to introduce legislation this week to forward this plan.

Inouye, Akaka and then Congressmember Neil Abercrombie, D-1, HI, opposed this plan in 2005 when then Congress Member Ed Case, D-2, HI, introduced a similar exemption measure.

Malia Zimmerman is the editor of Hawaii Reporter. Reach her at Malia@hawaiireporter.com

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