Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla acknowledged late yesterday that the Legislative Assembly will not pass legislation this year providing for a plebiscite on options for resolving the question of Puerto Rico’s political status, as he had asked.
The U.S. Congress enacted a law providing for the plebiscite in January.
In his State of the Commonwealth address in April, the Governor asked the Legislative Assembly to pass the necessary local legislation in its session that began in August. The session ends November 18th.
Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Anibal Jose Torres said that he saw “no way” a bill for the plebiscite — which has not even been drafted yet — could be approved this year. The House of Representatives Co-Chairman of the joint Senate-House Committee on the Status of Puerto Rico, Jose “Cony” Varela, agreed.
The two legislators are members of the territory’s “status quo” party headed by Garcia Padilla.
They cited lack of time as the reason for the Legislative Assembly not acting this year.
And Garcia said that legislation for the plebiscite could pass as early as January next year.
But the lack of time is due to a deep division in his party over what a “commonwealth” option for the plebiscite should be.
Yesterday, Garcia noted that the party is not based on a particular status aspiration, as are the territory’s statehood and independence party.
It is a party that has various economic and social goals. The statehood and independence parties do as well but see statehood and independence as the way to achieve their economic and social goals as well as to obtain a democratic form of government at the national government level.
President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status and many in Congress, such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, agree that the most effective way to address Puerto Rico’s serious economic and social challenges is to resolve the question of the territory’s ultimate status: whether it will be a State of the U.S. or a nation.
“Commonwealth” party leaders do not even agree on what Puerto Rico’s status is now.
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. Most “commonwealth” party leaders say it is a “commonwealth” but the faction of the party responsible for the lack of agreement on what “commonwealth status” should be acknowledges that Puerto Rico is really an unincorporated territory.
Garcia Padilla, who leads another faction, has agreed with former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon that the U.S. Government has given up a part of the Congress’ power written in the U.S. Constitution to govern unincorporated territory as it wishes so long as it does not violate the fundamental rights of individuals. Specifically given up, they claim, is the authority to govern Puerto Rico on matters that State governments handle and on tax matters.
The Governor and former Governor agree that Congress retains its Territory Clause power to govern Puerto Rico on other matters.
President Obama’s Task Force, like the administrations of both Presidents Bush and Bill Clinton and Congress under both Republican and Democratic majorities, does not agree that the U.S. Government has given up any power over Puerto Rico.
The Federal plebiscite law enacted in January provides for a vote on status options that can resolve the question of the territory’s ultimate status. Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission is to formally propose the options but the proposals must be agreed to by the U.S. Department of Justice.
In addition to the options being able to resolve the question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate status, the options cannot be incompatible with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.
Garcia has proposed that a “commonwealth” option not change Puerto Rico’s political status but, instead, exempt Puerto Rico from Federal tax, transportation, labor, and trade laws and provide for equal funding for the territory in all Federal social programs, which would cost about $8 billion a year.
The proposal would not meet the requirements of the Federal plebiscite law because it would not resolve the question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate status. As long as Puerto Rico is a territory, its people can petition the U.S. Government for statehood or nationhood.
The proposal would also conflict with Federal tax, transportation, labor, trade, and social program laws.
The “sovereigntist” faction of the party has proposed that Puerto Rico become a nation in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end. This would meet the requirement of the Federal plebiscite law for the option to be able to resolve the question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate status.
But the “sovereigntist” proposal would also require the U.S. to continue granting citizenship to all individuals born in a nation of Puerto Rico and require the U.S. to give Puerto Rico new financial assistance — proposals that would conflict with Federal laws and policies.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, a leader of the “sovereigntist” faction and a former House of Representatives member, has said that there are not “enough votes” among “commonwealth” party members in the Legislative Assembly to pass either proposal.
There are also not enough votes in the party’s Governing Board to resolve the dispute.
Garcia called a meeting to try to do so two months ago, but the only definitional agreement reached was that any “commonwealth” proposal should provide for permanent U.S. citizenship (which is only possible under statehood).
A four-member committee of former party presidents was set up to negotiate further. It includes: Hernandez Colon; former Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila, a key leader of the nationalist wing; former Senate President Miguel Hernandez Agosto, a past advocate of sovereignty; and former San Juan Mayor Hector Luis Acevedo, who has not been an outspoken status ideologue.
The committee does not appear to have made progress on the issue.
The Governing Board, which has 30 members, also agreed that if it can finally agree on a proposed “commonwealth” for the plebiscite, the proposal would have to be adopted by the larger party Council, which has hundreds of members, or an even larger party General Assembly that has thousands of members.
President Obama proposed and Congress approved the Federal plebiscite law because Garcia and the “commonwealth” party majorities in each house of the Legislative Assembly elected in November 2012 have refused to accept the validity of a plebiscite under Commonwealth law held the same day of their election. The vote rejected Puerto Rico’s current territory status – which Garcia supported — by 54% and chose statehood among the alternatives by 61.2%.
The White House supported the 2012 plebiscite and hailed its results. But Obama Administration officials were concerned that lobbying by Garcia and “commonwealth” party legislators against the plebiscite’s petition for Federal action to transition the territory to statehood would result in congressional inaction on the people of Puerto Rico’s self-determination decision.
White House officials and congressional committee leaders reasoned that losers would have less credibility in disputing a plebiscite held under the auspices of a Federal law and the U.S. Justice Department.