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President Proposes Plebiscite to Affirm Puerto Rico’s Status Choice

President Obama today sent Congress legislation for another plebiscite in Puerto Rico to resolve the question of the territory’s future status.

The proposal was included in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget.  It proposes $2.5 million for the Puerto Rico Elections Commission to be used for voter education and the plebiscite.  The funds could be used only after the Attorney General of the United States has found a Commission plan that includes education materials and ballot options to be consistent with the Constitution and basic laws and policies of the United States.

The Commission has equal representation from each of Puerto Rico’s political parties, with a president appointed by its governor. For the status plebiscite under local law last November, the membership was increased to include representatives of each of status option.

A similar appropriation was proposed by President Clinton and enacted into law by the Republican Congress in 2000 for a Puerto Rican status choice in 2001. It was not spent because the funds lapsed before a plan was developed.

The President’s proposal responds to a plebiscite that the territorial government held under local law last November.  That vote rejected Puerto Rico’s current territory status by 54% and cast ballots for statehood by more than 61% among the alternatives to territory status.

The legislation recognizes that advocates of an unprecedented “commonwealth” status narrowly won elections last November to dominate the territory’s government, that these officials have disputed last November’s plebiscite, and that they could get opponents to block legislation to implement the November plebiscite’s results.

The President’s plebiscite under Federal auspices would affirm the self-determination will of Puerto Ricans and be one that local “commonwealth” supporters would not be able to dispute.

The “commonwealth” status that these politicians have proposed would, among other unprecedented measures, exempt Puerto Rico from congressional governing authority under the  Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  Obama’s Justice Department and Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, like those of previous presidential administrations and congressional authorities, have said that is impossible: any “Commonwealth” governing arrangement would subject Puerto Rico to Territory Clause powers.

The President’s proposal also effectively takes plans of pro-“commonwealth” territorial officials to call a “constitutional assembly” to adopt their proposed new “commonwealth” status next year off the table.  They will not be able to have such an assembly with credibility with the President of the United States saying that the process should be a plebiscite with only territory, statehood, independence, and nationhood in a free association with the U.S. as possible options.

The options for the President’s proposal do not need to include territory status, since the 2012 plebiscite rejected that status.  It only requires that the proposals be constitutional ones proposed by Puerto Rico.

The United States took Puerto Rico from Spain in connection with the Spanish-American War and Puerto Ricans have been granted U.S. citizenship since 1917. But whether the territory will eventually become a State or a nation has not yet been finally determined.

The island home of 3.7 million people has been granted the exercise of self-governing authority similar to that possessed by the States but  Puerto Ricans are only represented in the Federal government by a resident commissioner who has a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives with a vote only in committees.

In a March 2011 report, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status found that the island’s economic development needs were hindered by lack of resolution of the ultimate status question. The issue also raises questions about the appropriate Federal policies related to Puerto Rico.

The Task Force also advised, as it did under President Bush, that Puerto Ricans should vote to determine their aspirations among the legally possible options for Puerto Rico’s status.

See the actual text of the Puerto Rico provision in the President’s budget here.

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