The House passed the Puerto Rico Status Act (PRSA) on December 15, 2022. News outlets have described this event as “a vote on statehood or independence,” a “Bill Allowing Puerto Rico to Hold Statehood Referendum,” and even as an “independence vote bill.”
It would be more accurate to report that the House has passed a bill confirming the end of Puerto Rico’s territorial status.
Puerto Rico is a territory
For more than 120 years, Puerto Rico has been a territory of the United States. The Insular Cases established the idea of “unincorporated” territories which were not necessarily on a path to statehood, as all previous territories had been. Under these 20th century decisions, Congress could keep Puerto Rico in the position of a territory indefinitely.
If PRSA were to become law, this would no longer be an option.
The bill gives Puerto Rico’s voters the chance to choose a permanent political status. The current territory status is not one of the options.
PRSA rejects the “commonwealth” option
Continuing as a territory is not one of the choices voters will have under the Puerto Rico Status Act. This option was not included for several reasons:
- Territory status is not a permanent political status. A territory can always become a state or an independence nation. Choosing to remain a territory would therefore not resolve Puerto Rico’s status.
- Being a territory belonging to the United States is increasingly recognized as a colonial relationship. Sine the goal of the bill is to decolonize Puerto Rico, it should not include a colonial status.
- A majority of Puerto Rico residents have voted against continuing the territorial status.
While it was not given as a reason to eliminate the territorial status, the fact is that “commonwealth” is meaningless in this context. Supporters of “commonwealth” do not actually support the current territorial status. Instead, they favor a mythical special relationship often called “enhanced commonwealth.”
This notion has been soundly rejected by all three branches of the federal government. It is not a viable status option.
“Commonwealth”proponents lobbied Congress to vote against the bill. They did not receive a single Democratic vote.
The end of “commonwealth”
The Department of Justice had previously insisted that the current territorial status should be included in any status vote. The bill passed last week is notable for not including this possibility and the White House’s statement in support of the bill, which recognizes the “three constitutional options for non-territorial status: Statehood, Independence, and Sovereignty in Free Association with the United States.”
Debate in the House of Representatives on the bill can be found here and here.