Congress has been discussing Puerto Rico during the recent negotiations on Congressional responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Conversations have not been about the Island’s political status, even though the government of Puerto Rico indicated that statehood is a part of its economic strategy in its most recent budget.
The Puerto Rico legislature has also passed a bill calling for another status referendum this November, and there is a statehood admissions bill pending before the U.S. Congress.
What would it be like if Congress were considering Puerto Rico’s status? A transcript from 1999 suggests that it would be a lively discussion.
Senator Frank Murkowski (R-AK) was the chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources at that time. He started one hearing by making it clear that the committee would not be debating statehood, or indeed any status for Puerto Rico. The hearing was an examination of the 1998 referendum, which had taken place months before the hearing.
“I grew up in the Territory of Alaska,” Murkowski said. “I remember well the debates over our status. I remember the frustration we felt when it appeared that Washington really didn’t care what we thought or what we wanted, for that matter. Well, that’s not going to happen in Puerto Rico… while I and my colleagues on this committee meet our obligation.”
“I do want to congratulate the residents of Puerto Rico who participated in the plebiscite. Just as a historical note and by way of comparison, when my State of Alaska went to the polls in 1946 on the issue of status, less than 17,000 persons participated — about 23 percent of the population at that time,” he continued. 23% is the participation level seen in Puerto Rico’s 2017 plebiscite, as it happens.
Before the 1998 plebiscite
Then-governor Pedro Rossello brought the committee up to speed by reporting on the “futility” of the 1993 plebiscite. “My administration made a point of inviting Puerto Rico’s three political parties to define for themselves the political status option that they would endorse in our 1993 plebiscite,” he explained. “Regrettably, that good faith gesture resulted in inclusion on the ballot of a Commonwealth definition that was utterly unrealistic… a solution that would have imbued Puerto Rico with many of the benefits of U.S. statehood and many of the prerogatives of independence, while exempting Puerto Rico from most of the responsibilities inherent in both of these options. The 1993 commonwealth ballot definition, in other words, amounted to a wish list. It was both politically unattainable and constitutionally inadmissible.”
Rossello explained how that futile vote had led to the inclusion of “none of the above” as an option on the 1998 ballot — with a fantasy-based definition including many items on the “enhanced commonwealth” wish list. He quoted the Washington Post’s December 1998 editorial on the subject:
The biggest vote, 50.2 percent, went to a “none of the above” catch-all category supported in good part by pro-Commonwealth voters who were indulging a best of both worlds fantasy definition of commonwealth — many privileges, few obligations — that Congress would never approve. The plebiscite was a flop. It measured erratically, not conclusively, the sentiments on the island. But it is not only the Puerto Ricans who have been unable to get their act together. Congress is at similar fault.
Here lies a fault that must be remedied. Congress must select and fairly define the Puerto Rican status choices it would be prepared to accept. Nothing less will satisfy the obligation to convert an imperial property into a place of dignity for American citizens who are equal in rights to all others.
Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) responded with, “It seems that this fifth option that most people voted for was sort of the free beer and barbecue option, where everybody got everything and there was no pain involved. Is that essentially your view of it? That’s why it was so strongly supported by people?”
Governor Rossello agreed.
The 1998 vote
Other senators took a similar view — that voters in Puerto Rico had been offered a deceptive but appealing option.
Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) asked Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá about all the things “enhanced commonwealth” might include, from treaties with foreign nations to cherry-picking federal law. Hearing repeatedly that “we can sit down and work that for the future,” she finally said, “Because if this were possible for Puerto Rico, Louisiana might like to have this. This would be very popular at home, for us to be able to veto the IRS.”
“If people were given that option, I think it would win all the time on every ballot, and it’s a sort of a false choice because there are no free lunches and free barbecues and free beer,” she also said.”[T]here has been a valiant struggle here to present steady and clear options, and it’s not any one particular person’s fault. But it’s our responsibility now, I think, as this Congress to give the right and clear options, and I’m hoping that we can do that.”
Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) asked the governor several questions that got to the heart of the inequality faced by Puerto Rico:
- “I’d like to ask you how do the young men and women of Puerto Rico feel about a system in which a government can compel them to possibly give their lives defending a country and yet they have no right to vote for that government or the representatives that might possibly send them to war.”
- “This uncertainty surrounding the status of the territory, does that have an impact on economic growth, investment, job creation, for your citizens?”
- Is it true that under the Constitution the ultimate responsibility lies with the Federal Government for determining the admission to the Union as a State, for setting the qualifications, establishing the procedure, that sort of thing?
The governor answered the first question diplomatically, but gave affirmative answers to the last two, noting that uncertainty about Puerto Rico’s status does impact economic growth on the island and that Congress has a role to play.
There were statements from each of the political parties in Puerto Rico, and each declared their preferred status the winner.
Finally, Zoraida Fonalledas spoke, saying, “[W]e need a congressionally-sponsored plebiscite. It’s necessary. The people of Puerto Rico want the process of self-determination, and I think it’s an obligation of the Congress to define the status options very clearly and very concise[ly], so we can proceed to a mechanism and then have our plebiscite with Congressional definition.”
Congress enacted $2.5 funding for such a vote in 2014, but a federally endorsed plebiscite has not yet occurred.
If a yes/no vote is held in November, Congress will not have to cope with wasted votes for the “free beer and BBQ” option.