In 1992, President George Bush wrote a memo calling on federal agencies to treat Puerto Rico “as if it were a state.”
“Puerto Rico is a self-governing territory of the United States whose residents have been United States citizens since 1917 and have fought valorously in five wars in the defense of our Nation and the liberty of others,” the memo begins.
“On July 25, 1952, as a consequence of steps taken by both the United States Government and the people of Puerto Rico voting in a referendum, a new constitution was promulgated establishing the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The Commonwealth structure provides for self-government in respect of internal affairs and administration, subject to relevant portions of the Constitution and the laws of the United States,” the memo continues. “As long as Puerto Rico is a territory, however, the will of its people regarding their political status should be ascertained periodically by means of a general right of referendum or specific referenda sponsored either by the United States Government or the Legislature of Puerto Rico.”
Puerto Rico has had six referenda since that time. The three held in the 21st century have all resulted in votes for statehood. The most recent, in November 2020, was a simple yes/no vote on statehood. Statehood won, with 53% of the vote.
Administrative Treatment of Puerto Rico as a State
The memo’s title, “Administrative Treatment of Puerto Rico as a State,” makes it clear that the next section of the memo is the meat of the matter.
“Because Puerto Rico’s degree of constitutional self-government, population, and size set it apart from other areas also subject to Federal jurisdiction under Article IV, section 3, clause 2 of the Constitution, I hereby direct all Federal departments, agencies, and officials, to the extent consistent with the Constitution and the laws of the United States, henceforward to treat Puerto Rico administratively as if it were a State,” the memo goes on, “except insofar as doing so with respect to an existing Federal program or activity would increase or decrease Federal receipts or expenditures, or would seriously disrupt the operation of such program or activity.”
This announcement, which was hailed as “a big step forward” by the Governor of Puerto Rico at the time, was decried by The Washington Post as “mainly symbolic,” because of the paragraph that followed:
With respect to a Federal program or activity for which no fiscal baseline has been established, this memorandum shall not be construed to require that such program or activity be conducted in a way that increases or decreases Federal receipts or expenditures relative to the level that would obtain if Puerto Rico were treated other than as a State.
In other words, the memo did not affect the fact that Puerto Rico receives less funds under federal programs than it would if it were a State.
“This is lip service, if you are not putting your money where your mouth is,” the Post quoted Marco Rigau, a member of the Puerto Rican Senate, as saying.
“If any matters arise involving the fundamentals of Puerto Rico’s status, they shall be referred to the Office of the President,” the memo concluded. “This guidance shall remain in effect until Federal legislation is enacted altering the current status of Puerto Rico in accordance with the freely expressed wishes of the people of Puerto Rico.”
The memo can be found in USC Title 48: Territories and Possessions, on page 664.