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Legislature Moves Towards Assembly for Unconstitutional “Commonwealth Status”

Puerto Rico’s legislature has taken a step towards calling a convention on the territory’s future political status if President Obama’s proposal for a status plebiscite does not become law by December 31st.

The Legislative Assembly established a special Joint Committee on Status Affairs charged with planning a “Constitutional Assembly” on Puerto Rico’s status.  Co-chairing the 10-member committee are Senate President Eduardo Bhatia and House of Representatives Speaker Jaime Perello, both of the “Commonwealth” party.

The measure was approved on a party-line vote with statehood party legislators voting against it and the Independence Party senator voting in favor with the “Commonwealth” party majority.

The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations has approved Democrat Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget plebiscite proposal.  It is caught up, however, in the overall debate between Republicans and Democrats on all discretionary spending for the fiscal year, which began October 1st.

Because of the debate, appropriations have been made only based on the terms for Fiscal Year 2013 and only through January 15th.

The agreement for the funding through January 15th established a special joint congressional committee tasked with working out funding for the rest of Fiscal Year 2014 by December 13th.  The compromise would then, hopefully, be enacted into law by January 15th.

The Federal timetable ends half a month later than the deadline Puerto Rico’s legislature set afterwards.

Additionally, it is uncertain whether the Federal timetable will be met and whether there will even be a compromise on the Federal budget for this fiscal year.  Although the Senate and House co-chairs of the special congressional committee report progress, most close observers think that there will not be an agreement and that funding on current law terms will continue.

Obama’s proposal would give Puerto Rico $2.5 million for a vote on a governing arrangement or arrangements that would resolve the question of the territory’s ultimate status.  The plebiscite would vote on a proposal or proposals of Puerto Rico’s tripartisan Elections Commission to the extent that the U.S. Department of Justice agrees that the proposal or proposals do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the Federal government.

The possible options are U.S. statehood and nationhood — including both independence and nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end.

The President made the proposal because the “Commonwealth” party governor and legislative majority of Puerto Rico very narrowly elected last November disputed a plebiscite under local law held at the time of their election.  The plebiscite rejected territory status, which they supported in the plebiscite campaign, by 54%.  It also chose statehood among the possible alternatives by 61.2%.

New Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla and his legislature allies disputed the plebiscite on several grounds.  One argues that Puerto Rico is not a territory, although they unsuccessfully supported that option in the plebiscite and Federal authorities including the U.S. Supreme Court and the Obama Administration maintain that Puerto Rico is subject to congressional governing authority under the U.S. Constitution’s Territory Clause.

The ‘commonwealthers’ also disputed the plebiscite because it did not include their proposal for an unprecedented “Commonwealth status.” Under this proposal, Puerto Rico would be permanently empowered to nullify the application of Federal laws and court jurisdiction and to enter into international agreements limited to sovereign nations while receiving new economic benefits in addition to current benefits of being a U.S. territory.

This proposal would not qualify for the Obama plebiscite because Federal officials — including in the Obama Administration — have found it to conflict with the Constitution and be otherwise unacceptable.

Puerto Rico’s new “Commonwealth” party officials also dispute last year’s plebiscite because some voters did not choose an alternative to territory status.  Elections — including Puerto Rico status plebiscites — are determined by people who vote, not those who do not.

“Commonwealth” party leaders have wanted an assembly to propose the territory’s  future status — instead of Puerto Rico’s people in a plebiscite — for two related reasons.  One is that they hope that not more than a plurality of an assembly’s delegates will want statehood and that they will be able to form a slight majority coalition in the ‘back room’ of an assembly with advocates for nationhood on their “Commonwealth status” proposal. They hope nationalists will join with them to derail the increasing support of Puerto Ricans for statehood.

They also hope that it would be easier to get their “Commonwealth status” proposal adopted as a new Puerto Rican self-determination proposal among a majority of delegates to an assembly in a ‘back room’ than it would be in a plebiscite.  A plebiscite would require a written proposal well in advance of its vote that Federal officials as well as statehooders and nationalists would criticize as impossible.

Since Puerto Rico officially adopted statehood as its future status aspiration in the 2012 plebiscite, commonwealthers are anxious to have that self-determination decision superseded by their troubled status proposal.

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