Puerto Rico’s representative to the Federal government, Pedro Pierluisi, yesterday urged the Commonwealth Elections Commission to propose the plan for the plebiscite on the territory’s ultimate political status provided for by a Federal law enacted in January and suggested that the plebiscite be on statehood.
The law proposed by President Obama provides $2.5 million for a plebiscite planned by the Commission if its status option or options can resolve the issue and are found by the U.S. Department of Justice to not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.
The law was proposed and enacted because the “Commonwealth” party governor and Legislative Assembly majorities very narrowly elected in November 2012 lobbied against positive congressional action on the results of the plebiscite under local law held along with the elections. The plebiscite soundly rejected Puerto Rico’s territory status, the option supported by now Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, and chose statehood by a 2-1 margin over two nationhood options.
Garcia Padilla and other ‘commonwealthers’ have refused to accept the results certified by the Elections Commission and hailed by Obama’s spokesman because the plebiscite did not include their party’s proposal for Puerto Rico’s status. Under it, Puerto Rico would be a nation able to enter into agreements with other nations but the U.S. would be permanently bound to it and to an arrangement which would also empower Puerto Rico to nullify Federal laws and court jurisdiction. The U.S. would, further, be obligated to give: the Commonwealth a new subsidy; all current assistance to Puerto Ricans; free entry to any goods shipped from Puerto Rico; and citizenship to anyone born in Puerto Rico.
The Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations and congressional leaders of both national political parties have said that the proposal is impossible for constitutional and other reasons.
The Federal law enacted in January requires U.S. Justice Department approval of the plebiscite options to prevent such a proposal from being included in the Federal plebiscite. The plebiscite’s possible options are statehood and nationhood, either in an association with the U.S. that either nation can end or fully independent of the U.S.
Territory status, sometimes misleadingly called “Commonwealth” after the formal name of the insular government, cannot be an option because it cannot resolve the question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate status. As long as Puerto Rico is a territory, its people, U.S. citizens by birth, can petition the Federal government for statehood or nationhood.
Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission includes one representative each from the territory’s statehood, “Commonwealth,” and Independence parties and a president appointed by the Commonwealth’s governor. It has not yet taken any action in response to the Federal law.
Governor Garcia publicly supported the law before it was enacted — but some of his representatives unsuccessfully tried to undermine it in congressional meetings. Their argument was that the Governor and the Legislative Assembly (controlled by their party) should plan the plebiscite instead of the Elections Commission (in which the statehood and Independence have a greater say).
The Commission has a tradition of acting by consensus of the three status-based parties. When agreement cannot be reached, the president can resolve the issue — but Federal officials would certainly seriously question a Commission plebiscite plan objected to by the statehood party, the territory’s largest party.
Garcia’s spokesman yesterday made the same argument against Pierluisi’s proposal that the Governor’s lobbyists had unsuccessfully made in Congress when the law was being considered.
The Federal law, however, does not prevent Puerto Rico’s governor and legislature from enacting a law that the Commission would have to follow. In fact, an insular law would be needed to conduct a plebiscite, probably to provide funding in addition to the $2.5 million that the Federal law would grant and definitely to make other arrangements.
The Federal law does, however, put pressure on the insular government to act and to do so seriously considering proposals of the rival statehood party as well as establishes the Federal expectation that a further Puerto Rican status choice would be made by vote of the people and the Federal requirement that a status choice be limited to proposals that are possible to implement, excluding impossible “Commonwealth” plans.
Shortly after the law was enacted in January, Garcia said that he would propose a combination of the process provided for by it and the status choice process that his party said it would legislate if the Federal legislation were not enacted before January. The party’s process would call an insular government assembly on the issue.
The Legislative Assembly created a joint committee to plan the status assembly even before the December 31, 2013 deadline that it gave for congressional approval of the Obama proposal.
After months of silence, last week, Garcia merely asked the Legislative Assembly to consider the process provided for by Federal law along with an insular status assembly — but to not act before August.
His delaying and failure to propose a concrete course of action probably promped Resident Commissioner Pierluisi to call for immediate action on the fundamental question and central issue of the territory.
Pierluisi, who has a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives with a vote only in committees, heads the statehood party, and was the top vote getter in the 2012 elections, gave several reasons for the plebiscite being on statehood.
- Statehood won the 2012 plebiscite.
- 132 members of the U.S. House and Senate have sponsored bills for a plebiscite on statehood and there is no Federal legislation for any other approach.
- A statehood plebiscite would indisputably be fair because opponents and supporters of statehood would have an equal opportunity to express their view.
- A statehood plebiscite would have a definitive result.
- Statehood meets the Federal law’s requirement for resolving the status issue.
- Statehood obviously meets the law’s requirement for not conflicting with Federal law.
- The “Commonwealth” party proposed a statehood plebiscite as late as 2010.