The next chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives committee with general jurisdiction over the governing of U.S. territories has suggested that he would support legislation providing for Puerto Ricans to vote on the territory’s status.
Representative Rob Bishop (R-Utah) voted against a bill that the House passed in 2010, which would have provided for a Puerto Rican status plebiscite. He said in an interview with El Nuevo Dia newspaper, however, that he would probably “vote differently” on such a bill now.
The incoming chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee added that he would meet with the territory’s representative in the House who serves on the Committee before taking positions on Puerto Rico status questions. He would do so because “I want to be deferential to Commissioner Pierluisi,” he explained to correspondent Jose Delgado.
Although Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner cannot vote on legislation in the full House, he or she can vote on legislation in committees. Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi is aligned with Democrats nationally and was the lead sponsor of the 2010 bill Bishop voted against. Now head of the territory’s statehood party, Pierluisi has requested a meeting with the 12-year representative from Utah to discuss the status issue.
Unsurprisingly for an incoming chairman of the committee with general jurisdiction over the governing of territories, Bishop was unhappy that the law the Federal government enacted in January providing for a Puerto Rican status plebiscite went to the full House from its Appropriations Committee rather than from the Natural Resources Committee. He would have preferred that the Natural Resources Committee originate legislation on the issue.
Recognizing that outgoing Chairman ‘Doc’ Hastings (R-Washington) has not held a hearing on the issue even though Puerto Ricans voted to reject territory status and choose statehood among the alternatives through a plebiscite under local law in 2012 and even after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) did a major report on the Federal budgetary impacts of statehood at his request, Bishop said “As Chairman of the Committee, I will be more open to discussion.”
Hastings raised questions about statehood on budgetary and cultural grounds before the 2012 plebiscite and before the GAO issued its report. The report noted the Federal and insular budgetary benefits of statehood as well as the costs.
The current Committee Chairman has been silent on the issue, however, since these developments, although he initially planned last year to hold a hearing on the plebiscite results and the GAO report.
Bishop’s openness on the issue may relate to his background. He was a high school teacher for 28 years who primarily taught American history and government. He is also a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, like Puerto Rico-born representative from Idaho Raul Labrador (R), whose district shares a border with Idaho. Labrador favors statehood for Puerto Rico.
Bishop was a member of the Utah House of Representatives for 16 years – ultimately its Speaker — before being elected to Congress. He has also been Chairman of the Republican Party in Utah. This gave him a seat on the Republican National Committee, where he served with Puerto Rico statehood advocates.
Federal Plebiscite Law
The Puerto Rican status choice law enacted in January provides for a plebiscite on options proposed by the Commonwealth Elections Commission that can resolve the issue and are found by the U.S. Justice Department to not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the United States. It includes $2.5 million for the plebiscite to be granted by the Justice Department to the Elections Commission.
The known possible options for the plebiscite are statehood and nationhood, either fully independent from or in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end.
The current territory status, sometimes misleadingly called “commonwealth” after a word in the official name of the insular government, cannot be an option because it cannot resolve the issue. As long as Puerto Rico is a territory, its people — U.S. citizens by birth under current law — will be able to petition for statehood or nationhood.
The January law was proposed by the Obama White House and the Justice Department and championed in the House by Frank Wolf (R-Virginia), chairman of the Appropriations Committee subcommittee that handles legislation funding the Justice Department, Representative Jose Serrano (D-New York) who was born in Puerto Rico, and Pierluisi.
The Obama White House supported Puerto Rico’s plebiscite and hailed its results. It was concerned, though, that opposition from Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla and his ‘commonwealth’ party majorities in each house of Puerto Rico’s Legislative Assembly would result in inaction on the self-determination decision of Puerto Ricans.
Garcia Padilla and the ‘commonwealth’ party legislators disputed the plebiscite and its results because the vote’s “commonwealth” option was Puerto Rico’s current territory status and not the new “commonwealth status” the party had proposed.
Under the proposal for an unprecedented “commonwealth status,” the U.S. would be permanently bound to Puerto Rico and to an arrangement under which the Commonwealth government could nullify the application of Federal laws and Federal court jurisdiction and enter into international agreements and organizations as if Puerto Rico were a sovereign nation.
The U.S. would also be obligated to continue to grant citizenship to individuals born in Puerto Rico, all current assistance to Puerto Ricans, and free entry to any goods shipped from Puerto Rico. It would, additionally, have to grant a new subsidy and most Federally owned land in Puerto Rico to the Commonwealth.
The Obama Administration and congressional sponsors of the Federal plebiscite law reasoned that U.S. Justice Department agreement to the plebiscite’s options would make it more difficult for ‘commonwealth’ party elected officials to dispute the plebiscite’s options.
In addition to the Federal plebiscite law, 130 members of the U.S. House from both national political parties led by Pierluisi and three U.S. senators sponsored bills in this Congress to provide for statehood for Puerto Rico if Puerto Ricans vote for equality within the nation a second time.
Pierluisi has not said what efforts he will make in the new Congress that takes office in January to advance statehood for the territory.
New Committee Leaders
Republicans will continue to have absolute control of the House. They will also take a majority of seats in the Senate but not control on most issues since that requires a three-fifths majority in the Senate.
One of the members of the House who joined Pierluisi in sponsoring his statehood bill, Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), will become the new senior Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee.
Grijalva has said that he sponsored the bill to promote resolution of the Puerto Rico’s central issue and that he does not have a preferred status for the territory.
Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will chair the Senate committee with lead responsibility for legislation on the governing of Puerto Rico in the new Congress, Energy and Natural Resources. Murkowski has said that she will support statehood if it is desired by a majority of Puerto Ricans but that the initiative for it should originate in Puerto Rico.
She has been among those who have said that the “commonwealth” proposal cannot be a status option.
She also recognizes that a majority of Puerto Ricans rejected the current territory status in the 2012 plebiscite. But she views the vote as not making it clear whether there is majority support for statehood.
Current Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), a strong supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico, will become the senior Democrat on the Committee if she wins a run-off election for the Senate seat she now holds December 6th.
If not, that Committee post will go to Maria Cantwell (D-Washington). Cantwell thinks that the current territory status is bad for the U.S. budget and bad for Puerto Rico’s economy. She is inclined towards nationhood for Puerto Rico.