Congressional Hearing on Puerto Rico Status Scheduled for Sept. 25

On September 25th, a hearing on Puerto Rico’s status will take place in the House Natural Resources Committee. The hearing is titled, “Puerto Rico’s Options for a Non-Territory Status and What Should Happen After November’s Plebiscite.” This event will take place at noon, Eastern time.

The hearing will be livestreamed.

House Natural Resources Committee

Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898, following the Spanish-American War. In 1898, the Insular (Island) Affairs Committee was formed. Insular Affairs was combined with several other committees, including the Territories Committee, into the Public Lands Committee in 1946.

In 1951, the committee was renamed the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, and in 1993 the name was changed to the House Committee on Natural Resources.

This committee is in charge of legislation for Puerto Rico. House and Senate committees have held previous hearings on Puerto Rico’s status.

2000 Puerto Rico Status Hearing

In 2000, a hearing was held to consider H.R. 4751, ‘Puerto Rico-United States Bilateral Pact of Non-territorial Permanent Union and Guaranteed Citizenship Act,’ a bill which would have made “Puerto Rico’s present commonwealth system of internal government” permanent. The bill declared Puerto Rico non-territorial and non-colonial, guaranteed U.S. citizenship to people born in Puerto Rico, and also declared that “Congress recognizes Puerto Rico as a nation legally and constitutionally.”

Rep. Don Young introduced the hearing with these words:

Let me point out that this hearing is not a hearing on the
many other recommendations for resolving the status of Puerto
Rico. This is not a hearing on the Independence Party’s
recommendations, nor a hearing on the New Progressive Party’s
recommendations, nor a hearing on the administration’s
recommendations. This is a hearing on H.R. 4751, the Popular
Democratic Party’s commonwealth status recommendations.
The Popular Democratic Party was invited to testify at this
hearing. Unfortunately, the president of the party declined our
invitation.

Rep. Jim Saxton summed up the proposal offered by HR 4751:

The proposal, which I understand was originally put forward
by Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth Party, seeks to create a quasi-
nation within a nation. This new entity would have the
authority to make all laws necessary for its own governance,
regulate trade with foreign countries, and enter into treaties
with other nations. On the other hand, the residents of this
new entity would be U.S. citizens, use U.S. currency, and be
protected from enemy attack by U.S. forces. If this entity
sounds more like a State than a separate nation, consider that
the citizens and businesses of this new entity would not have
to pay U.S. income taxes.

Now, it seems to me that if something looks like a duck and
it acts like a duck and it talks like a duck, we all know that
it is probably a duck. But if something would look like a
territory, act like a nation, and walk like a State, I think we
know what it is, too. It is unconstitutional and legislatively
unattainable.

Jeffrey Farrow, Co-Chair of the President’s Interagency Group on Puerto Rico, expressed the position of the federal government by saying that the United States would not accept the deal described in the bill.

Many aspects of this proposal would require actions by the
United States to be implemented, so Puerto Ricans should know
the United States’ views on it before they consider it.
The proposal includes a combination of aspects of different
statuses. Many people may find the combination attractive. As
stated, though, the combination is an incompatible mixture of
benefits of national sovereignty and benefits of a U.S. status.
Many of the individual elements would be appropriate under one
status or another, but others are impossible or unacceptable.

Rep. Don Burton (R-IN), describing the “enhanced commonwealth” proposal as an insult, proposed a solution:

I firmly believe that Congress should act now to give the people of Puerto Rico the ability to choose between the only real options for full sovereignty, statehood or independence.

The bill did not become law.

2013 Puerto Rico Status Hearing

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing in 2013, the year after Puerto Rico voted for statehood in a referendum.

This hearing included a panel comprised of the presidents of Puerto Rico’s three primary political parties, each representing one possible political status.

Alejandro García-Padilla, the President of the “Commonwealth” Party, and then the Governor of Puerto Rico, focused on objections to the 2012 plebiscite. He summed up his objections by saying, “The plebiscite disenfranchised pro-Commonwealth voters because it failed to recognize the possibility of an enhanced Commonwealth.”

Rubén Berríos, President of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, gave a speech claiming that Congress would never accept  Puerto Rico as a state.

Pedro R. Pierluisi, then Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico and President of the New Progressive Party, pointed out the problems inherent in unincorporated territory status and gave his analysis of the 2012 vote:

A majority of voters in Puerto Rico do not support the current territory status, a supermajority favor statehood among the three valid alternatives, and more voters want statehood than any other option, including the current status. These results are now part of the historical record, and they cannot be dismissed or diminished by those who find them inconvenient.

Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) later said, “Insisting on supporting the [“Commonwealth” party’s] improved ‘Commonwealth’ proposal after it was rejected by the United States as inconsistent with the Constitution undermines a solution to the status debate.”

The Senate leaders sent a letter to all three Puerto Rico political leaders explaining that “enhanced commonwealth” is not a viable option.

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