President Gets Governor to Drop 2014 Status Assembly Plan

Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla said Sunday that he would not call for an assembly to propose a new political status for the islands next year because of President Obama’s proposal for a status plebiscite under Federal auspices.

Garcia said that his “campaign promise … was that if the President did not take action in the first year [of a Garcia administration], in the second year we would take action.” He went on to note that, “The President is taking action.”

In fact, Garcia and his “commonwealth” status party said that they would hold a “constitutional assembly” on a future status if they won the elections and the Federal government did not enact a law providing for a Puerto Rican status choice that would be automatically implemented.

The assembly plan was a strategy to avoid a public choice regarding the territory’s future status. Party leaders have noted that, in a plebiscite, voters would cast ballots for their preferred status but, in an assembly, ‘commonwealthers’ could try to form a coalition with Puerto Rico nationalists to outvote statehood delegates.

An additional ‘backroom’ strategy for an assembly would be to develop a status proposal that Federal officials would say in a plebiscite with options set in advance is impossible for constitutional and fundamental policy reasons.

The “commonwealth” party wants an unprecedented “commonwealth” status under which Puerto Rico would be permanently empowered to nullify the application of Federal laws to the islands and Federal court jurisdiction and to enter into international agreements and organizations limited to sovereign nations.

In addition, the United States would also be permanently obligated to grant all current Federal program benefits to Puerto Ricans and citizenship based on birth in the islands, a new subsidy to the insular government, and free entry to goods shipped from Puerto Rico.

The Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations and congressional officials have said that the proposal is impossible for constitutional and other reasons. A fundamental deficiency is that Congress cannot give up its power to govern the islands under the Constitution’s Territory Clause unless it makes the islands a State or a nation.

Commonwealthers had hoped that an assembly’s adoption of such a proposal would force Federal officials to accept it despite these flaws because it represents the “self-determination will” of Puerto Rico.

Avoiding such a situation is one of the reasons that the Obama White House last week proposed a plebiscite on options to resolve the territory’s future status in its budget for Federal Fiscal Year 2014, which begins October 1st.

The proposal requires that the U.S. attorney general approve the final options for the plebiscite, along with all explanatory materials, to ensure that the options proposed by Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.

Obama Administration officials recognized that opposition from Garcia and other “commonwealth” party Puerto Rico elected leaders would block action in Congress on the territory’s petition for statehood made through a status plebiscite held under local law last November.

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