While Congress is in its August recess, with House Members back home in their districts and preparing for November elections, the Puerto Rico Status Act (HR 8393) remains pending before Congress.
The controversial proposal, led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), calls for a vote in Puerto Rico on the Island’s political status.
One of the most contentious points of the bill is that it proposes a ballot structure for Puerto Rico’s next plebiscite that offers a choice among only non-territorial options, eliminating “commonwealth” as an option on the ballot.
What is commonwealth?
“Commonwealth” has no real meaning in the United States, where several states and Puerto Rico use the term in the official names of their states and territories.
Historically, some Puerto Rican political leaders have claimed that the “commonwealth” represents an agreement between the United States and Puerto Rico that was finalized in the form of Puerto Rico’s 1952 Constitution. Yet historic records are clear that the Puerto Rico Constitution did not change Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory. In fact,the U.S. Congress approved Puerto Rico’s Constitution only after Puerto Rico made changes that Congress had insisted upon, demonstrating that Puerto Rico lacked authority vis-a-vis the U.S. right from the get-go.
Yet the myths persist. Just last month, the San Juan Star wrote about a celebration of “the 70th birthday of the commonwealth.” In the article, the Star reported that a bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate which would “include the commonwealth as an option.” This bill would in fact include “reaffirmation” of the current status – which is a territory.
A new report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) summarizes the points of view on “commonwealth,” saying, “Debate over significance of the ‘commonwealth’ term notwithstanding, action by Congress would be necessary to alter Puerto Rico’s political status. Doing so, of course, would require passage of legislation by Congress and approval by the President.” That is, Puerto Rico remains a territory belonging to the United States until that is changed by Congress.
Loss of “commonwealth” believers in Congress
Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) has a long history of support for the idea of an “enhanced commonwealth.” In the past, she had argued that Puerto Rico has a “bilateral compact” with the United States.
At a 2022 hearing in San Juan, she gave “commonwealth” proponents a chance to make their case: “We welcome those who favor the ‘enhancement’ of the Commonwealth that is not territorial and not colonial, and that they present that option to us. We are here to listen to those who tell us what the option of a non-territorial, non-colonial Commonwealth is.”
Despite this opening, “commonwealth” supporters were unsuccessful in convincing House drafters to include their option.
The new Puerto Rico Status Act offers the voters of Puerto Rico a chance to choose among non-territorial options, and only among those which are actually viable under the U.S. Constitution. Given the history of confusion over the “commonwealth” label, the pending proposal represents newfound clarity and a possible path forward from Puerto Rico’s current undemocratic status.