By JOHN FUND – In his nationwide address last night on the Gulf crisis, President Obama declared: “We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes.” But at least one congressman isn’t convinced, complaining that Mr. Obama won’t pursue promising solutions if it means bucking his union allies.
Hawaii GOP Rep. Charles Djou, who won his seat in a special election last month, says he’s “disappointed” that Mr. Obama has failed to waive the Jones Act, an antiquated 1920 law mandating that goods shipped between U.S. ports be handled by U.S.-built and -owned ships manned by U.S. crews. Unions fiercely support the law as a means of preserving U.S. jobs. In this case, though, the law might be hindering the recovery of hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast jobs.
Mr. Obama could issue a full waiver of the Jones Act, but failed even to mention the law in his speech last night. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Bush administration didn’t hesitate to waive the law completely in an emergency. Congressman Djou says a waiver is essential in spurring the Gulf Coast cleanup. The Houston Chronicle reports that several countries offered to send sophisticated equipment immediately after the spill but were turned down. The Dutch government offered ships fitted with oil-skimming booms three days after the leak began. Geert Visser, the consul general for the Netherlands in Houston, said the answer from the Obama administration was “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Later, the administration relented, allowing U.S. ships to be outfitted with Dutch skimming booms that can remove 20,000 tons of oil and sludge a day. “At that rate, how much more oil could have been removed from the Gulf during the past month?” asks the Chronicle. The paper notes that some offers of help from other countries still haven’t been accepted.
The Jones Act may also have played a role in delaying the construction of sand barriers to protect the fragile Louisiana coast. Mr. Visser, the Dutch consul, says American dredging companies, which lack the dike-building expertise of the Dutch, rebuffed Dutch offers of help, which might have meant running afoul of the Jones Act.
For the longer term, Mr. Djou is about to introduce a bill to exempt his home state of Hawaii from the law. Hawaii is hit hardest by the law because most goods arrive by sea. Despite the political power of unions locally, Mr. Djou is pressing forward. He told Malia Zimmerman of the Hawaii Reporter this week: “If it comes down to fighting for special interest or the people’s interest, I will fight for the people’s interest.”
Too bad President Obama won’t see things the same way and waive the Jones Act in the current emergency.
John Fund is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal