One of the last pieces of legislation to be passed by the House of Representatives in the 117th Congress was the Puerto Rico Status Act (PRSA), which laid out a process for Puerto Rico to end its status as a U.S. territory.
The bipartisan bill boasted 16 Republican sponsors. Despite the divided government that continues to characterize Washington, these Republican cosponsors added their names to a proposal that had the support of all House Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and other left-leaning Democrats with whom Republicans typically do not join forces.
“It is obvious,” Bruce Westerman (R-A) said during the debate, “there is bipartisan support for Puerto Rican self-determination. That is not the issue. The issue is the process, and this is a bad process.”
Rep. Michael Walz (R-FL) voted against the bill because of the overpromises it makes to the people of Puerto Rico on the independence option, which he believed was a result of a rushed process. His statement on the PRSA makes it clear that he would have preferred a more deliberative path for consideration of the bill. “The self-executing legislation rammed through the waning days of the 117th Congress is just another barrier to granting the people’s will,” he said, “while setting a dangerous precedent if independence is chosen regarding citizenship rights, transfer of federal properties, and continued federal payments to another foreign nation, which I cannot support.”
The process of the bill’s introduction and quick approval was mentioned repeatedly during the floor debate.
What’s wrong with the process?
There were objections to many aspects of the bill. The independence options include specific requirements for the constitution of a new Republic of Puerto Rico; Bruce Westerman (R-AR) objected to the idea that the United States could make demands on the constitution of an independent nation. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) objected that the bill does not address reparations for Puerto Rico.
Was it rushed?
One of the most common objections, however, mentioned by a number of members, was that the bill was rushed through Congress.
“Our constituents will awaken across the country to the realization of a fait accompli that was quickly rushed through the very last days of session with no opportunity for national debate on the implications of making such a profound and permanent change in the fabric of our Nation,” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA).
Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-OR) said, “I had the privilege of sitting through a discussion of this bill six months ago. I was surprised when it abruptly appeared this morning.”
Westerman claimed that the House Natural Resources Committee had spent more time discussing big cats than Puerto Rico status legislation.
Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) addressed this concern directly, pointing out that the Natural Resources Committee had held multiple hearings on the bill and on the question of Puerto Rico’s political status, in Puerto Rico and on the mainland, in English and in Spanish, as well as providing a public online space for comments.
“Last year, the Natural Resources Committee held two legislative hearings where Puerto Rican-elected government officials, legal and human rights experts, and residents offered testimony and feedback to the committee on the details of [two bills previously introduced in the 117th Congress]” said Grijalva. “The Puerto Rico Status Act combines important elements of these two bills to present a compromise that also incorporates input from the full range of voices among Puerto Rico’s status debate…We had in-person public hearings, including with over 100 individuals who shared comments and suggestions on the text with the delegation at our public forum in Puerto Rico… The Puerto Rico Status Act is, therefore, the product of a participatory and informed process. It incorporates expertise and knowledge from a wide range of stakeholders who have grappled with the dilemma of Puerto Rico’s second-class political status for many years. I can’t think of a single bill that we have gotten out of the Natural Resources Committee that we spent more time on this term than this bill.”
Was it secretive?
Another frequent complaint was that the details of the bill had been negotiated privately.
“Because of the hasty and secretive process that was used to develop this bill, it contains many concerning and unresolved issues,” Westerman said. “We should be treating these U.S. citizens with respect and letting a full and robust legislative process in the light of day take place to address the status question and the many implications for the people of Puerto Rico and for all Americans.”
Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL), said in a statement after the vote that “House Democratic Leadership hastily brought a bill to the floor which lacked the requisite debate and bicameral, bipartisan input and support to become law…[This bill] was negotiated behind closed doors.”
The phrase “behind closed doors” has been widely used by a range of organizations and publications opposing the bill for a variety of reasons. Rep Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA) used the term during the floor debate, saying the bill “was written behind closed doors and without the input of House Republicans.”
Grijalva addressed this point as well in his defense of the bill, as it was a small group of Members of Congress committed to the Puerto Rico status issue that negotiated the proposal after months of general discussion. The PRSA was negotiated by Reps. Grijalva (D-AZ), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Jenniffer González-Colón (R-PR), Darren Soto (D-FL), and Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD), based on two bills that they had previously been introduced in Congress: HR 2070 and HR 522.
Options not argued
Apart from listing the options offered by the bill, there were few mentions of the three status options.
Statehood was referenced by a few, including Reps. Hoyer and Gonzalez-Colon, who said, “I prefer statehood, but this bill would allow the people to choose between statehood, independence, or independence in association with the United States.”
It was also mentioned by McClintock, who said,”So how does it benefit America to admit a State that would be the most indebted, uneducated, poorest, and least employed State in the Nation? We don’t get to consider that question, because under this bill, Congress gets no further say in the matter once Puerto Rico has voted.” In spite of several disparaging comments about Puerto Rico, McClintock’s main point once again centered on the process.
Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States by Spain 124 years ago. Congress provided statutory citizenship for the people of Puerto Rico 105 years ago. No change in the political status of the territory has taken place since that time.
The Island was given the opportunity to draft its own constitution 70 years ago. The federal government said at the time that this would make no difference in the political status of Puerto Rico, but Congress has considered Puerto Rico’s status repeatedly in the years since.
Numerous hearings, referenda, and debates have taken place during this century. The PRSA was introduced in the House in July after which it was considered and passed by the House Natural Resources Committee.