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New U.S. House Chairman on Puerto Rico’s Status

As PUERTO RICO REPORT disclosed, Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) has gotten territories issues added to the Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee he has chaired for four years on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs and   the Alaskan has been very active before in trying to enable Puerto Rico’s territorial status to be replaced by a fully democratic governing arrangement.

Also as PUERTO RICO REPORT disclosed, Young is now the third longest serving Member of the House of Representatives. Only Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) have held office longer. Young was first sworn into Congress in 1973.

A native of California, Young served in the U.S. Army and taught school in the 700-resident village of Ft. Yukon, Alaska, as well as enjoying stints in commercial fishing and trapping. He became mayor of Ft. Yukon and then went to the State Senate before entering Congress just in time to lead the fight for the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline.

“Next to statehood itself,” Congressman Young is quoted as saying on his website, “the most historical legislation passed that affected every Alaskan then, now, and in the future, was the passage of the pipeline legislation.”

Young has seen the effects of going from territory status to statehood first hand – an experience that informs his views on Puerto Rico’s status.

Young is best known as the lead sponsor of a bill that passed the House in 1998 that would have provided a process for Puerto Ricans to choose the territory’s ultimate status that included referenda every 10 years with all of Puerto Rico’s real status options — independence and free association in addition to statehood and territory status — and would have continued until Puerto Rico became a State or a nation.

But during Young’s long tenure in Congress, he has made numerous statements  on Puerto Rico’s status and proposals for a “commonwealth” status.  One of his earlier statements was this quote from 1993:

It is ridiculous to suggest that the United States would ever agree to a commonwealth with permanent union between Puerto Rico and the United States.  Only by being incorporated into the body politic of the United States can Puerto Rico be considered to be in permanent union.  We are a democracy united by a Constitution which extends equal protection, rights, and privileges to all.  The United States will not set aside over two centuries of reliance upon this near-sacred document to be “bound by a bilateral pact that could not be altered, except by mutual consent.”  Even the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) allows a member to end the agreement with a 6-month notice.

In a 1994 statement following a referendum under local law in Puerto Rico in 1993, Young  again spoke forthrightly about territory status and the “commonwealth” proposal that received 48.6% of the vote on that ballot:

[On the November 14, 1993 plebiscite ballot], [t]he people were presented a mythical commonwealth option which proposed significant changes to the current relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States[.]

It should not be surprising, given human nature, that a plurality of the people voted for a guarantee of virtually all of the benefits and assistance of U.S. citizenship without the corresponding duties and obligations. Notwithstanding the option of `all-the-goodies-without-the-price,’ and to the grand credit of the people of Puerto Rico, a combined majority chose status options offering additional rights and responsibilities. A near plurality of voters chose statehood with the same rights, benefits, and responsibilities of the 50 States; a small fraction voted for independence with the inherent rights, powers, and obligations of separate sovereignty.

The commonwealth formula is clearly not an economically or politically viable alternative to the current self-governing, unincorporated territorial status of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico; and the unalterable bilateral pact that such commonwealth formula proposes as the vehicle for permanent union of Puerto Rico with the United States is not a constitutionally viable alternative to the current self-governing, unincorporated territorial status of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

It is unfortunate that the voters have faced unrealistic and inflated expectations of a supposed commonwealth relationship with the United States. However, this has become an opportunity to set the record straight; to quell the commonwealth fantasy status which continues to be promoted to the detriment of the society it is purported to help. While it is true that the United States-Puerto Rico relationship shares many things in common, no permanent union secured by an unalterable bilateral pact with irrevocable American citizenship is possible under any variation of the proposed commonwealth formula. Our U.S. Constitution provides the only avenue for irrevocable U.S. citizenship, total equality, and permanent union.

From 1995 to 2001, Young was Chairman of the full Natural Resources Committee. In February of 1996, he joined with three other House committee and subcommittee chairman in sending a letter to Puerto Rican leaders regarding the 1993 “Commonwealth” proposal:

None of the status options presented on the ballot received a majority of the votes cast.  While the commonwealth option on the ballot received a plurality of votes, this result is difficult to interpret because that option contained proposals to profoundly change rather than continue the current Commonwealth of Puerto Rico government structure.  Certain elements of the commonwealth option, including permanent union with the United States and guaranteed U.S. citizenship, can only be achieved through full integration into the U.S. leading to statehood.  Other elements of the commonwealth option on the ballot, including a government-to-government bilateral pact which cannot be altered, either are not possible or could only be partially accomplished through treaty arrangements based on separate sovereignty.

Young also shot-down “commonwealth status” proposals in the case of one from the territory of Guam. In a 1996 letter to then-President Clinton, he explained problems with the Guam proposal, in particular one that would have required Guam’s consent to changes in the relationship between the Federal government and the island — also a foundation of Puerto Rico “commonwealth” proposals.

“Since the [Guam Commonwealth Act (GCA)] would be a Federal statute, a future Congress can not be bound to a political status relationship with an unincorporated territory as contemplated by the GCA. The “solution” apparently arrived at in the Guam discussions is to create ambiguity about the nature of the mutual consent clause. Thus, instead of an enforceable right of consent, Guam reportedly is prepared to accept a provision which admits of unenforceability. This may have some symbolic political value, but in the end it only underscored the disenfranchisement and lack of equal participation or real consent in the Federal political process for U.S. citizens in an unincorporated territory such as Guam.

An agreement that will unravel as soon as the ink dries, or another proposal that simply gathers dust, has no real value for the U.S. or Guam. Those of us elected to get results for the people we sere need to take responsibility for doing more than “coming to closure” with Guam in form but not substance. If we believe we can pretend to have a real agreementand then walk away or wash our hands of it, we are really just setting up the people of Guam for another episode of disappointment.

… the Federal government must never risk making a mockery of the decolonization process. We would do just that by attempting to make less-than-equal citizenship and permanent disenfranchisement seem more tolerable through the legal and political fiction of “mutual consent.”

Also that year, Young wrote in a letter that he did not expect plans for Puerto Rico’s self determination to be possible until Puerto Rico ‘commonwealth’s’ dropped demands for the territory to be able to opt out of Federal laws.

Young and Committee Ranking Democrat George Miller issued a report on Puerto Rico’s local referendum on status options in 1998. In the report, they wrote that “the Popular Democratic Party, which has been the long-standing advocate of commonwealth, did not support the Commonwealth ballot definition [on the 1998 plebiscite ballot]. Instead, the PDP officially adopted and advocated an alternative commonwealth definition that did not appear on the ballot and contained principles rejected on a bipartisan basis by the Committee on Resources during consideration of H.R. 856” the bill that had passed the U.S. House that year.

In 2007, in a statement during a hearing of the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Young spoke directly to the representatives of Puerto Rico present:

My goal here is to really try to allow Puerto Rico to advance. And I do not believe you can advance as a commonwealth. I say that from my heart. Because we [Alaska] were not able to advance as a … territory …  my ultimate goal is to try to give the Puerto Rican people a choice. And my bill, H.R. 900, does give them a choice. And if they decide to be an independent nation, God bless you. If you decide to be a State, God bless you. If you decide to be a commonwealth, you are not going to grow.


1 thought on “New U.S. House Chairman on Puerto Rico’s Status”

  1. Young nailed it with;

    No sulution of self determination possible untill the “commonwealth” party drops the unrealistic demands.

    That’s just it….. they want to issue unrealistic commonwealth proposals to perpetuate the commonwealth.
    The second part of the strategy is bankrupting Puerto Rico to disqualify it from statehood consideration.

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