On the floor of the United States Senate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was clear:
“The United States of America should not treat Puerto Rico as a colony. We cannot and must not take away the democratic rights of the 3.5 million Americans of Puerto Rico and give virtually all power on that island to a 7-member board….This is not what the United States of America is supposed to be about, and this is not how we should treat a territory in the year 2016. The bottom line is that the United States must not become a colonial master, which is precisely what this legislation [the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA)] allows.”
But Sen. Sanders was too late.
Not because the bill ultimately passed, but because the people of Puerto Rico didn’t have full democratic rights even as Sen. Sanders spoke. The people of Puerto Rico have never had full democratic rights – not since the U.S. conquered the island in 1898 in the Spanish American War, and not before the war, when the island was a colony of Spain.
Sure, the people of Puerto Rico can elect their own local officials – they did so both before PROMESA passed and after it passed. But those local officials have never been able to do anything without at least the acquiescence of the U.S. federal government. Not that they haven’t tried. There was a time that a pro-“Commonwealth” governor attempted to create diplomatic relations with neighboring countries – an effort then Secretary of State Colin Powell shut down. And then there is, of course, the matter of Vieques, in which the U.S. Navy used Puerto Rico for bombing exercises for years against the wishes of many in Puerto Rico.
The U.S. Constitution (Art IV, Sec. 3) explicitly grants Congress the power “to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” Legislation enacted in the 1950’s gave Puerto Rico control over its local affairs, but Congress was always the entity with ultimate responsibility for Puerto Rico.
The Supreme Court was clear about Congressional authority over Puerto Rico in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, a decision the Court issued as the House of Representatives debated PROMESA. In Sanchez Valle, the Court not only cited the Territory Clause of the Constitution but also went so far as to clarify that Puerto Rico is not on “equal footing” with the States, and does not share in their “power, dignity and authority.”
During Congressional debate on PROMESA, the veneer of U.S. democracy in Puerto Rico came off. As Rep. Luis Gutierrez explained: “We are engaged today in a wholly undemocratic activity in the world’s greatest democracy. We are debating how we will take power from people who are virtually powerless already.”
Gutierrez added, “Yes, the Territorial Clause of the Constitution of the United States says that they are a territory and that, therefore, they are property of the United States of America. But I submit to each and every one of you that they are live human beings with hearts, with souls, and they should demand and receive the respect of any other human.”
Picking up on the Sanchez Valle decision, House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) stated, “just this morning, the Supreme Court ruled on a case concerning the territory [of Puerto Rico]….By a 6-2 decision, the Court held that Puerto Rico is not a separate sovereignty because the ultimate source of its power and its constitution is the United States Congress. So, indeed, this reminds us all here today of our duty to assist in the territorial issues.”
Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ) emphasized, “[w]e have a moral and constitutional responsibility to address this fiscal crisis which will only get worse if we don’t act.”
Even House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) contributed to the debate: “I know this goes without saying, but it is worth repeating: the Puerto Rican people are our fellow Americans. They pay our taxes. They fight in our wars. We cannot allow this to happen.”
In the debate over PROMESA, there was also recognition of the history of Congress’s responsibility for Puerto Rico’s fiscal problems, regardless of local control. As Rep. Byrne (R-AL) explained in detail: “After hearing calls for greater autonomy, in 1950 Congress recognized Puerto Rico’s authority over internal matters through passage of the Federal Relations Act. Congress also approved Puerto Rico’s constitution in 1952. So we gave them the control they demanded, and with that, they attempted to become a liberal paradise by raising taxes, expanding government programs, and spending at unsustainable rates. To help pay for these policies, Puerto Rico issued billions of dollars in bonded debt that they can no longer pay back. Now they are demanding help, which puts Congress in a very difficult position.”
Byrne took the House floor again at the conclusion of the debate: “[A]s we have heard over and over again today, this Congress has plenary authority over our territories. Over the course of the last century, this body has rightly delegated this power to provide for home rule for our territories. However, it is abundantly clear that this delegation of power has resulted in no oversight by the Federal Government over the debts that our territories are running up….[D]elegated authority can be abused. If we have a constitutional responsibility to intervene to prevent territorial insolvency, we certainly should exercise at least minimal oversight into the large debts that some of our territories are running up.”
In the Senate, Sen. Menendez (D-NJ) spoke passionately about the the lack of democracy in the PROMESA legislation, noting “you have 7 unelected members ultimately having the fate of 3.5 million people in their hands.”
Citing the cost of PROMESA, which will be borne by Puerto Rico, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) added, “a $370 million cost would also be imposed on the people of Puerto Rico for something which they never had a say in. It is not as if they can even submit what they think the plan could be. They could, but the board doesn’t have to consider it.”
Perhaps summing up the PROMESA debate, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) simply stated “Puerto Rico is spiraling out of control, and it is our constitutional responsibility to put our territory on a different path and change the economic trajectory.”
“We have a responsibility to take action on this matter,” Westerman added.