Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) wrote to the Appropriations Committees of both the House and the Senate, asking for equal treatment of Puerto Rico in nutrition assistance and disaster relief generally.
“As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans deserve equal treatment when it comes to federal assistance,” they wrote. “Please keep the recovery needs of Puerto Rico in mind when making decisions regarding any FY 2019 supplemental disaster funding.”
Menendez and Cortez Masto mentioned specific items:
- The $600 million set aside for the NAP (food stamps) program, which will prevent loss of benefits in March.
- The HUD rebuilding funds appropriated for Puerto Rico but not yet released to the Island.
- Needed clean water grants available through the EPA.
The letter also called for equality, in general, for Puerto Rico in disaster funding.
Can Congress treat Puerto Rico differently?
Court decisions from the 20th century have specifically said that Congress can treat Puerto Rico differently from states as long as there is “a rational basis” for doing so. A recent study showed that Puerto Rico has in fact received significantly less support than States also affected by the 2017 hurricanes. The White House protested the $600 million for NAP on the grounds that Puerto Rico simply doesn’t need it. That could be an example of a rational basis for giving less to Puerto Rico than to Florida or Texas.
However, a recent court decision questions this idea of “a rational basis.” U.S. District Judge Gustavo Gelpí said in U.S. v. Vaello-Madero, “Classifying a group of the Nation’s poor and medically neediest United States citizens as ‘second tier’ simply because they reside in Puerto Rico is by no means rational.”
Gelpi concluded that “Article IV of the Constitution confers upon Congress the power to enact all needful rules and regulations for governing territories of the United States. This clause, however, is not carte blanche for Congress to switch on and off at its convenience the fundamental constitutional rights to Due Process and Equal Protection.”
The judge also said that differences in federal funding between Puerto Rico and the States created “an impermissible second rate citizenship.”
This court decision may make it more difficult for Congress to discriminate against Puerto Rico in funding decisions. At least, it may make the recipients of the senators’ letter more open to the idea of equal treatment for Puerto Rico.
Source of Puerto Rico inequality
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. As Gelpi phrased it in his decision, “United States citizens residing in Puerto Rico are the very essence of a politically powerless group, with no Presidential nor Congressional vote, and with only a non-voting Resident Commissioner representing their interests in Congress.” Puerto Rico’s path to equality with the States is to become a State.