On Thursday Oct. 19, 2017, the following Senators offered remarks in furtherance of the efforts to restore Puerto Rico: Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ).
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE):
There is an amendment that I have introduced that I know may well not get a vote but that I wanted to speak to. It would ensure that, as we consider tax reform, we do not forget those who are the most in need of our assistance right now and in the future. The United States was hit very hard by three hurricanes and many wildfires this year. In particular, Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.4 million people, was devastated by Hurricane Maria, which was wider than the entire island. It caused massive damage and is now resulting in a humanitarian crisis. Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people is several times more than live in my State of Delaware.
It is about the size of Connecticut. Once we get past this initial crisis and restore power, provide clean drinking water, get hospitals functioning, and ensure people have housing, then Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the areas of Houston, TX, and Miami, FL, as well as areas affected by wildfires in all of these other parts of our country will have significant rebuilding needs. We have representatives of the Governor of Puerto Rico and the Governor himself here on the Hill this week to clarify just how much more will be needed for the Marshall Plan-style investment to rebuild Puerto Rico.
I am going to be advocating that we provide further support for folks from the Corporation for National and Community Service, AmeriCorps volunteers, and NCCC volunteers. Thousands of them have served in response to these emergencies. We are going to need investments in CDBGs for parks and for infrastructure. Before I hand it over to my colleague from Virginia, I want to reference a second amendment that would prevent us from moving forward with tax reform until we first provide for the needs of Americans who have been affected by these disasters and emergencies. I wish we would take that up. Let me close by thanking my colleague from Virginia for his long leadership on the issue of responsible fiscal management for our country.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA):
Let me also echo that I absolutely support his notion that the American citizens in Puerto Rico deserve not to be forgotten and deserve to receive the same attention we have bestowed upon Americans in Texas or in Florida or in Louisiana or elsewhere around our great country when they were victims of national disasters. I hope the Senator from Delaware gets a chance to submit his amendment. While Puerto Rico is not receiving sufficient attention, there is another American territory nearby, the U.S. Virgin Islands that also has those same kinds of challenges. If the Senator gets a chance to submit that amendment, I hope he will include the U.S. Virgin Islands in there as well.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ):
Mr. President, another area where it is critical that we come together, not as 50 separate States but as the United States of America, is to help the 3.5 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico. I have serious concerns that the current disaster relief package currently being considered by Congress falls far short of that. Tomorrow will mark 1 month since Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, leaving in its wake a trail of destruction, despair, and suffering. It is 1 month later, and still 88 percent of our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico don’t have power. It is 1 month later, and still one-third of the island lacks access to clean, safe drinking water.
Outside of the city of San Juan, the situation is even worse, as nearly two thirds of people still remain without water. Let me just pause for a moment to think about that. Think about it: an entire month without clean water, without water to bathe, to cook with, or simply to drink. How many of us can even imagine such an existence? More than half of the island’s cell towers are down, which is not just an inconvenience. It is a threat to safety. Imagine the sense of isolation and desperation when your power is out, when you have run out of potable water, with none on the way, and you can’t even call for help.
As bad as it looks on TV, the situation on the ground, as I saw it, is tragically worse. I am concerned that the package we are considering now is both inadequate in scope and unfair in treatment—inadequate because it is just a fraction of what Puerto Rico needs to recover, unfair because it treats the people of Puerto Rico different than Florida and Texas, even though they are U.S. citizens. While all three areas have been devastated by natural disasters, only Puerto Rico is being required to pay back natural disaster assistance. That is right. Unlike Florida and Texas, the majority of Puerto Rico’s assistance is coming in the form of a loan. While there are a lot of things that the people of Puerto Rico need from their Federal Government, one thing they absolutely do not need and simply cannot afford is billions of dollars of more debt.
This is not a normal disaster loan. No. Just like everything else with Puerto Rico, this loan comes with a major stipulation. While disaster loans are normally forgiven according to a standard formula under the Stafford Act, this package overrules longstanding law and leaves the decision entirely in the hands of the Secretaries of the Treasury and Homeland Security. While disaster loans are normally used to help people be safe and start the recovery process, this legislation gives the Secretaries of the Treasury and Homeland Security the authority to control how Puerto Rico spends the money. If Secretary Mnuchin decides that some, most, or even all of the loan should be used to pay off his friends on Wall Street, there is nothing Puerto Rico can do to stop him. If he decides that debt bondholders are more important than those who are suffering in darkness, there is nothing they can do to stop him. Instead of being treated like the rest of the country, Puerto Rico is left at the mercy of Treasury Secretary Mnuchin. They are at the mercy of someone who made his fortune off the backs of seniors and hardworking families who lost their homes in the foreclosure crisis.
Do we really think that someone who callously rejected the pleas of struggling families to save their homes and instead put them on the fast track to foreclosure is going to suddenly change now for the 3.5 million American citizens in Puerto Rico? Does anyone really believe he is going to put the people of Puerto Rico first? What a tragedy it would be if, instead of helping our most vulnerable citizens, this loan was used to pay off, in whole or in part, vulture funds. We need people saved, not bondholders. We need a response that answers Puerto Rico’s call. Instead of continuing to treat Puerto Rico like a foreign country and make them start a tab at the U.S. Treasury while they are vulnerable and pleading for help, we need to treat them just like their fellow American citizens in Florida and Texas. We need to provide unconditional assistance—real dollars to rebuild roads, the electrical grid, and to put people back in their homes and businesses. We need to address the massive Medicaid cliff that is forcing even more doctors and nurses off the island and threatening the health of the people of Puerto Rico. We need strong protections to make sure that the disaster relief stays with the people of Puerto Rico, where it is needed the most.
Let me close by saying that I grew up believing the United States was the greatest country the world had ever seen. I still believe that today as strongly as ever. Ultimately, our response as it relates to the people of Puerto Rico is not just about the people of Puerto Rico but about all of us. It is about our values—who we are as a people, who we are as a nation. How we respond to this crisis will test the collective conscience of our Nation, and it will define us. As I have said many times, I have never shied away from voting for assistance for flooding in Mississippi, for wildfires in the West, for hurricanes like Katrina, and any other natural disaster that has faced our country with our fellow Americans. I was amazed when I had to struggle and fight here on the Senate floor for the first time—I don’t know—in my lifetime to get assistance in the New York-New Jersey area after Superstorm Sandy. It took a major fight, with people voting no, even though I had always voted yes. The people of Puerto Rico do not have a U.S. Senator to cast their vote for them or to raise their voices for them. Yet, as long as I am a Member of this Chamber, I am going to continue to prick the conscience of the Senate to understand that when we walk to the Vietnam wall and see those names, a disproportionate number of them are Americans of Puerto Rican descent, who wore the uniform, gave their lives, and made the ultimate sacrifice. They did not leave the conflict early; they gave it their all. We cannot leave them early, nor should we leave them short.