Congress’s Obligation to Resolve Puerto Rico’s Status

The candidates and parties in the recent presidential election spoke up for self-determination for Puerto Rico. Now Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, who also chairs the Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico, seems to be brushing the question of status aside.

But Congress has a responsibility to the people of Puerto Rico that goes beyond campaign promises and beyond the task force.

The House of Representatives recognized that uncertainty surrounding Puerto Rico’s ongoing relationship with the United States was Congress’s problem to solve in legislation that chamber passed in 1998 (H.R. 856).  The United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, which was sponsored by  Rep. Don Young (R-AK), the current Chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, stated clearly that “[u]nder the Territorial Clause of the Constitution, Congress has the authority and responsibility to determine the Federal policy and clarify status issues in order to resolve the issue of Puerto Rico’s final status.”

Almost twenty years later, Puerto Rico’s status is still unresolved and Congress is still the only entity that can change that. As an unincorporated territory, Puerto Rico is in a position of powerlessness, a fact that has been reinforced repeatedly this year by the Supreme Court.

One thing that has changed in the past two decades is that 54% of voters in Puerto Rico rejected the island’s territorial status in a referendum in 2012. The White House accepted this vote as a “clear result,” but Congress has not taken action. The federal government is thus in a clear position of governing without consent of the governed. That alone could mandate action on Puerto Rico’s status on the part of Congress.

But even without these new developments, it is obvious that Puerto Rico has been in political limbo for more than a century, waiting for Congress to resolve the temporary status conferred on the Island.

Here are some statements from national leaders that make it clear that the federal government has long been aware of this problem:

  • “I am fully aware of the difficulties that Puerto Rico has faced in the past when dealing with this issue, but self-determination is a basic right to be addressed no matter how difficult.  [Puerto Rico’s] right to self-determination is deepened even further by the brave service that Puerto Ricans have provided to the nation’s armed forces, protecting all our people from foreign dangers throughout the past century. We will work to give a voice to the people of Puerto Rico to enable them to determine their political future.” — President Barack Obama
  • “Puerto Rico’s ultimate status has not been determined. Until that issue is resolved, questions remain about how United States economic and social policies should apply to the citizens of Puerto Rico… The elected representatives of the people of Puerto Rico have, therefore, repeatedly petitioned the Federal Government to clarify the islands’ status options as well as the process by which Puerto Ricans can determine the islands’ future status. The United States has a responsibility to answer such questions.” President Bill Clinton
  • “My choice is for statehood.  But I also say that the matter should be left up to the people of Puerto Rico.  And so we will continue to push in a reluctant Congress to get them to come along.” — President George H.W. Bush
  • “We recognize the right of the Puerto Rican people to self-determination [and] will accept whatever choice is made by a majority of the island’s population.” — President Ronald Reagan

Presidents back to the mid 20th century have spoken in favor of self determination for Puerto Rico, as have many legislators and other leaders. This is not a new issue which needs to be tabled until the current crisis is past. This is a longstanding responsibility of Congress which has been recognized but sidestepped for decades.

The Treaty of Paris, the deal between Spain and the United States that passed Puerto Rico into American ownership in 1898, put it this way: “The civil rights and political status of the native inhabitants of the territories hereby ceded to the United States shall be determined by the Congress.”

Perhaps 2017 will be the year when Congress makes its determination.

Click here for additional statements by national, state and local leaders

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