An obscure, 1920 shipping law might be crippling Puerto Rico even more and Trump is under pressure to take action

Get the Full StoryPuerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria and some experts say a 100-year-old US law is slowing its recovery.

The law, known as the Jones Act, places heavy tariffs on foreign ships delivering goods to the island, a US territory.

President Donald Trump said he is considering giving Puerto Rico a Jones Act waiver, but he is weighing pressure from the maritime industry.

Puerto Rico is reeling in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria — the most powerful storm to hit the island since 1928 — and many lawmakers and economic experts are calling on the Trump administration to overturn a law they say is further hampering the island's recovery.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, known as the Jones Act, was passed after World War I in an effort to protect the US maritime industry from foreign competition by requiring that only US ships — built, staffed, and owned by Americans — carry goods between domestic ports.

But that means any foreign ships delivering goods to Puerto Rico — a US territory — are subject to steep tariffs, driving up the prices of consumer goods.

Goods shipped from the US mainland — often transferred from foreign ships onto US vessels in Florida — are double the price in Puerto Rico than in neighboring islands, including the US Virgin Islands, not subject to the Jones Act. It makes the cost of living in Puerto Rico, where the per capita income is less than half that of the poorest state in the US, significantly higher than in most American cities.

"This is a shakedown, a mob protection racket, with Puerto Rico a captive market," Nelson Denis, a former New York State assemblyman, wrote in a Monday New York Times op-ed advocating for a full repeal of the Jones Act.

With Puerto Rico in dire straits, Denis and others have argued the US should suspend the law in Puerto Rico, cutting the costs of essential imports.

"A humanitarian crisis is about to explode in Puerto Rico. But the consequences of Jones Act relief would be immediate and powerful," Denis wrote. "This is not the time to price-gouge the entire population."

Critics argue the law also places burdensome restrictions on US businesses, which are subjected to higher costs of US shipping. But the maritime industry — represented by powerful lobbying groups — is strongly in favor of maintaining the status quo. And presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama have supported the law for national security reasons, arguing that US reliance on foreign shipping could be dangerous in a crisis.

On Wednesday, Trump told reporters that he is "thinking about" granting Puerto Rico a Jones Act waiver. But he quickly added, "We have a lot of shippers and a lot of people who work in the shipping industry that don't want the Jones Act lifted, and we have a lot of ships out there now."

Department of Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan told HuffPost on Tuesday that there are plenty of US ships available to deliver goods to Puerto Rico and that foreign vessels are unnecessary. He added that the potential consumer cost savings of waiving the law are "not material to our decision-making."

Trump has been criticized for appearing to be less attentive to Puerto Rico, which he described as "absolutely obliterated" by the storm, than to Texas and Florida following hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

The president's first public response to Hurricane Maria, which Puerto Rican officials say has "set us back nearly 20 to 30 years," came in a series of tweets criticizing the island's weak infrastructure and economy several days after the storm hit.

Carlos Giusti AP

A handful of US lawmakers have long argued for a repeal of the Jones Act.

In July, Republican Sen. John McCain, a longtime foe of the Jones Act, introduced legislation that would repeal the law, which he argues "hinders free trade, stifles the economy, and ultimately harms consumers." The senator renewed his call to action following Hurricane Maria.

"I am very concerned by the department's decision not to waive the Jones Act for current relief efforts in Puerto Rico, which is facing a worsening humanitarian crisis following Hurricane Maria," McCain wrote in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security.

"It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster," he added. "Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome act."

Other lawmakers, including Reps. Nydia Vel zquez of New York and Luis Guti rrez of Illinois, have spoken out. Vel zquez called for a one-year suspension of the law to speed Puerto Rico's recovery.

"The island is now facing an unprecedented uphill battle to rebuild its homes, businesses and communities," Vel zquez wrote in a letter signed by seven other members of Congress to DHS. "Temporarily loosening these requirements — for the express purpose of disaster recovery — will allow Puerto Rico to have more access to the oil needed for its power plants, food, medicines, clothing, and building supplies." NOW WATCH: Roger Stone explains what Trump has in common with Richard Nixon