New CRS Report Issued on Puerto Rico Status

The Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan governmental resource for Members of Congress, has released a new report on Puerto Rico’s political status. The central thesis of the report appears to be that status has been an element of every discussion, action, and failure to act on the subject of Puerto Rico for the past century.

The report concludes:

Congress first began considering Puerto Rico’s political status more than a century ago. History suggests that the debate will continue in Washington and on the island for the foreseeable future. As the 115th Congress monitors implementation of PROMESA, status is likely to be a contextual factor. Going forward, whether Congress chooses to revisit the island’s status as a central issue as opposed to a contextual one likely depends on whether the 2012 plebiscite results and 2016 elections are interpreted as widespread support for statehood, and on whether Congress believes it has an obligation to address status in addition to related policy issues such as PROMESA.

The report began by reviewing the history of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico since Spain ceded the Island to the United States in 1898 in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war. Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917.

The report reflects on the three major political parties in Puerto Rico, explaining that one supports independence and one statehood, while the third, the “commonwealth” party, holds that a constitution passed by Puerto Rico and approved by Congress in 1952 changed the status of the Island so that it became something other than a territory. Statements from Congress on this point have consistently held that the approval of the constitution had no effect on Puerto Rico’s political status, but these statements were not mentioned in the CRS report.

The report goes on to describe the five plebiscites held in Puerto Rico, including the vote in 2012 in which 54% of voters rejected the status quo and 61% of those who voted for any status option chose statehood. The report describes the controversy over that vote, and the 2016 election which swept the “commonwealth” party out of power and placed statehood supporters in the main positions of leadership in Puerto Rico. It goes on to review last year’s status-related developments, including HR 727, the Sanchez Valle decision, and PROMESA. The author concludes that “commonwealth status does not provide the local autonomy that some, particularly in the PDP, have long suggested.”

The CRS report identifies five possible positions on the preferred political status for Puerto Rico:

  • status quo
  • statehood
  • independence
  • “enhanced commonwealth”
  • “free association.”

The author remarks that “The viability of the ‘enhanced commonwealth’ position is not universally accepted,” later referencing the exclusion of this option from the plebiscite funding voted on in 2014 and reporting that “Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski wrote to President Obama noting that enhanced or ‘new’ commonwealth status ‘is incompatible with the Constitution and basic laws of the United States in several respects.'”

Identifying the “enhanced commonwealth” position as unconstitutional and excluded as a viable option in the upcoming federally-funded status referendum makes the claim that the idea is “not universally accepted” sound tongue in cheek, but the report appears to make every effort to be respectful to the idea.

Incoming Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico Jenniffer Gonzalez described the report as “the latest federal blow to the already generally discredited idea of a ‘commonwealth status.”

She points to the CRS report’s conclusion that the funding for a new plebiscite “remains available until expended, but Congress placed conditions on their release that appear to exclude the ‘enhanced commonwealth’ status option as a choice on the ballot.”

Leaders in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico have for many years openly rejected the “enhanced commonwealth” option, and many in the “commonwealth” party appear to be accepting the fact now. The Bond Buyer, which reported Gonzalez’s response to the CRS document, also reported that the “commonwealth” party refused to comment. A party meeting is planned in February to regroup and determine their position going forward.

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