Puerto Rico is in the headlines and Members of Congress, who have the responsibility of making all decisions for Puerto Rico under the U.S. Constitution’s Territory Clause, are getting up to speed on the status issue.
On June 12, the Congressional Research Service released a new report on Puerto Rico’s political status, which starts with an explanation of why status might matter to the Congress.
Why Status Might be Relevant for Congress
Some regard status as the fundamental political question that drives everything else about the Puerto Rico-U.S. relationship. Others see status as a distraction from more compelling everyday policy and economic challenges. Perhaps because that debate remains unsettled, status is an undercurrent in virtually every policy matter on the island.
The idea that political status can be set aside while long-range economic decisions are made may be more theoretical than practical, since the economic policies appropriate for a territory, a state, and an independent nation will necessarily be different. However, this idea is presented frequently in mainstream media in the 50 States, so it is at least a common misunderstanding that has to be taken into account.
As the report reminds its readers, ” Status is the lifeblood of Puerto Rican politics, spanning policy and partisan lines in ways that are unfamiliar on the mainland.” If nothing else, it is unrealistic to imagine that the status question will be set aside by Puerto Rico’s voters or leaders.
The report goes on to discuss the six plebiscites on political status which have been held in Puerto Rico, while also reminding readers that “Plebiscites are not required to revisit status. Whether or not a plebiscite were held, Congress could admit Puerto Rico as a state, or decline to do so, at its discretion, through statute.”
The result of the most recent plebiscite is laid out in the report:
On June 11, 2017, voters in Puerto Rico chose among the three options on the revised plebiscite ballot. 97.2% of voters chose statehood, 1.5% of voters chose free association/independence, and 1.3% of voters chose the “current territorial status.” Turnout for the plebiscite was 23% (approximately 518,000 of 2.3 million voters).
The report mentions the statehood and independence bills introduced in Congress in 2017, as well as the Department of Justice controversy over the ballot language. There is also discussion of HR 727 and the Supreme Court’s Sanchez Valle decision.
The report gives an overview of the status question which should help members of Congress catch up before they consider new legislation on Puerto Rico.