Thirty-eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives proposed statehood legislation for Puerto Rico yesterday.
The bill responds to the islands’ political status plebiscite last November. In the plebiscite, 54% of the vote rejected continuation of the current territory status, often popularly — but misleading — called “commonwealth,” and more than 61% was for statehood among the possible alternatives.
Puerto Rico’s official representative to the Federal government, who has a seat in the House but a vote only in its committees, Pedro Pierluisi (D) is the principal author of the bill. But joining him in sponsoring it were a broad cross-section of the Democratic leaders of the House and six Republicans.
Among the Democratic leaders are: Steny Hoyer (MD), the Democratic Whip; George Miller (CA), the alter ego of Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi; Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (FL), President Obama’s Chair of the Democratic National Committee; Joe Crowley (NY), the Vice-Chair of the Democratic Caucus; Ron Kind (WI), the Chair of the 50-Member New Democrat Coalition, the caucus of moderate Democrats; Raul Grijalva (AZ) and Keith Ellison (MN), the Co-Chairs of the 77-Member Progressive Caucus; Marcia Fudge (OH), Chair of the Black Caucus; and Jose Serrano (NY), the senior representative of a State of Puerto Rican origin.
Key Republicans include: Deputy Republican Whip Aaron Schock (IL); former Natural Resources and Transportation and Infrastructure Committees Chair Don Young (AK), who, with Miller, was the lead sponsor of a Puerto Rico status choice bill that passed the House in 1998; former Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL); former Homeland Security Committee Chair Peter King (NY); former Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica (FL); and Mario Diaz-Balart (FL).
One-third of the sponsors are from Florida, one of the most pivotal States in national elections and a State where the vote of citizens of Puerto Rican origin can swing elections between the national political parties. Polling suggests that Puerto Ricans in Florida favor statehood over territory status or nationhood along with Puerto Ricans who have remained in the islands
The bill would require the president of the United States to submit legislation to enable Puerto Rico to become a State after a phase in of equal treatment in Federal tax and program laws if Puerto Ricans ratify their desire for statehood in a referendum. It would also commit the Congress to pass such a bill.
Puerto Rico is treated as a State under most Federal laws but it is treated differently under major tax and social benefits laws. Puerto Rico’s economy and most Puerto Ricans lose more than is gained from the different treatment. The Federal treasury also loses revenue from multinational corporations and very wealthy individuals.
The bill follows legislation submitted to the Congress last month by the Obama Administration that would also provide for a vote in Puerto Rico to confirm last November’s self-determination decision by the territory. Under the U.S. Justice Department proposal, the Federal government would provide $2.5 million for a plebiscite on options proposed by Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission found by the U.S. attorney general to not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.
The House bill is compatible with the Obama proposal because the White House-initiated plebiscite can be on any of Puerto Rico’s real status options — including just one, such as statehood.
The Obama proposal requires that Puerto Rico status plebiscite options not conflict with U.S. law and policy because the “commonwealth” party has proposed a new “commonwealth status” that is impossible for constitutional and other reasons. Among other problems, it would have the Federal government permanently cede to Puerto Rico the powers to determine the application of Federal laws and court jurisdiction to the islands and to enter into international agreements that require a jurisdiction to be a sovereign nation.
It also calls for the new “commonwealth” status to not be a territory status — but President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status has said that is impossible under the U.S. Constitution.
The judgments of the Obama Administration on these issues are consistent with those of past administrations of both national parties and of congressional committees and leaders of both parties.
The Federal proposals for votes to confirm the self-determination aspirations of Puerto Ricans are being made because the “commonwealth” party governor and legislative majority elected to office at the time of the plebiscite dispute the plebiscite and its results. President Obama’s spokesman recognized the choice of statehood as the alternative to temporary territory status and today’s House bill recalls the plebiscite results in detail. But White House staff and U.S. House members feel that the opposition of Puerto Rico’s new governor and legislature majority would block ultimate congressional action based on the results.
The Obama and U.S. House legislative proposals fly in the face of efforts of the new governor and legislative majority to portray the results of the plebiscite as different from the official results, which were determined by the Puerto Rico Elections Commission with the support of its “commonwealth party representative. The governor and his legislature allies contend that the status option they urged votes for, the current territory status, was rejected by 51.7% instead of 54%, and that statehood won 44.4% of the vote instead of 61.2%.
They argue that Commission should have included ‘votes’ not cast in the percentage and number results, contrary to the law for the plebiscite, Puerto Rico election law, and general election law.
Their closest allies in the House, Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Nydia Velazquez, spoke for the “commonwealth” party. Gutierrez said that the plebiscite did not produce a mandate for changing Puerto Rico’s status. Velazquez curiously said that its referendum would be tilted towards statehood even though voters could cast ballots against statehood as well as for it.