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Enhanced Commonwealth or Free Association?

In a Congressional hearing in 2000, the late Congressman Don Young (R-AK) introduced the discussion on Puerto Rico status legislation (HR 4751) by saying, “HR 4751 is the measure that Congress would have to approve to attempt to implement the party’s enhanced commonwealth formula. Various versions of this enhanced commonwealth formula have been promoted in Puerto Rico for five decades as a theory of political status purporting to offer the benefits of both statehood and independence without the full burdens of either. The contention that this commonwealth formula might be legally possible and politically realistic is the subject of continuing debate within the Commonwealth.”

This was true in 2000, and it is still true today. While many observers announced that Supreme Court decisions like that in the case of Sanchez Valle and Congressional actions like the passing of PROMESA made it crystal clear that an enhanced commonwealth is a myth, legislation pending before Congress today (HR 2070) is an attempt to revive it.

Pro-“commonwealth” advocates are now using the term “free association” much as they used to use the term “enhanced commonwealth.” The proposals continue to be much the same as the one in HR 4751.

Congress’s silence made Enhanced Commonwealth seem plausible

The current Congress has not seriously discussed the proposal for “enhanced commonwealth.” Indeed, the pro-“Commonwealth” party in Puerto Rico has been unable to agree on a definition for this status option since 2000. The words being used to discuss HR 2070 are however echoes of the past discussions of enhanced commonwealth.

The 2000 hearing did not bring up statehood or independence or continued territory status. It was only about the enhanced commonwealth option. So it is the most recent congressional discussion of this possibility.

Carlos Romer-Barcelo, Resident Commissioner at that time, said, “I want my constituents who support this formula to be shown respect and to be understood. We need to establish a record that shows Congress understands what it is that they are proposing.”

“Congress has made this status formula called commonwealth to appear plausible by its ambivalence and silence on the status of Puerto Rico,” he continued. “The 3.9 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico need to know the truth about the enhanced commonwealth formula and this hearing should make the truth a matter of record in Congress.”

While Puerto Rico continues to lose population and no longer is home to 3.9 million U.S. citizens, the hearing is indeed a matter of public record.

Congress on enhanced commonwealth

Several members of Congress made statements in the course of the hearing. These were responses to the definition of “enhanced commonwealth” presented by the “commonwealth” party in the bill introduced by Rep. John Doolittle (CA).

Here are a few:

  • Rep Jim Saxton (NJ): “If something looks like a duck and it acts like a duck and it talks like a duck, we all know 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. The commonwealth plan appears to be nothing more than an attempt to gain political advantage by misleading the people of Puerto Rico into believing that they can have all the rights, privileges, and benefits they want without the duties, responsibilities, and obligations that go along with them.”
  • Rep. John Doolittle (CA): “I would vote against this bill myself, but I introduced it for the purpose of provoking this discussion and of getting finally a focus by the Congress on these issues because I think it is absolutely critical that we identify what the acceptable alternatives are, and in my opinion, this proposal reflected in the bill…is absurd and unconstitutional.”
  • Rep. Dan Burton (IN): “These definitions have misled the people of Puerto Rico into believing in something that is just not feasible…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.”

Two panels of constitutional scholars gave testimony in the hearing. While they provided detailed answers on questions such as the possibility of permanent citizenship in an enhanced commonwealth, no portion of the testimony contradicted these statements from Congress.

Congress has not officially presented Puerto Rico with a list of possible status options to choose from recently even though the Department of Justice was clear in June of 2021 that the only two alternatives to Puerto Rico’s current territorial status are nationhood or statehood.  All three branches of government have made many statements over the years confirming that statehood and independence are the only alternatives to territory status possible under the constitution.

House Committee on Natural Resources – Full Committee Hearing on H.R. 4751, October 4, 2000

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