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“PROMESA” Floor Debate Makes a Great Civics Lesson

The current polarization of the two major political parties in the United States can make it hard to get across the idea of bipartisan cooperation in Congress to students. For college or high school classrooms — or for stepping up dinner table conversations — the floor debate on PROMESA makes a great lesson.

So pull up a chair, start the video embedded above, and you can have a front row seat to watch passage of a bill that Howard Hills, author of Citizens Without A State, predicts will turn out to be an historic step toward statehood (or nationhood) for Puerto Rico.

If time is limited, visit the C-Span website where you can more easily find specific parts of the video as well as a transcript of the proceedings. We recommend that you check out a few essential sections:

  • The opening statement in debate by bill sponsor Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) at the beginning
  • Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who does a great job honoring the US Army 65th Infantry from Puerto Rico – the Borinqueneers – and summarizing the Democrat position at 53:25 (53 minutes 25 seconds)
  • Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has one of his finest moments summarizing Republican position at 1:14 (1 hour 14 minutes)

Rep. Lucas (R-OK) explains the precedent for the bill at 38:25, Democratic Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) shows statesmanship at 21:40, and the Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) summarizes his opposition to the bill at 41:20. Drama surrounded the statement at 34:25 by Pedro Pierluisi, the non-voting Congressman from Puerto Rico, who lost his bid to be Governor of Puerto Rico in last week’s primary at least at least in part because of his support for this compromise bill– after floating other proposals to help Puerto Rico that were more popular back home but could not gain the support of the voting members of Congress.

Congresswoman Lummis (R-WY) speaks at 1:12:04 (1 hour, 12 minutes, 4 seconds). Lummis is Vice Chair of the full Committee on Natural Resources, whose Chairman, Rep. Bishop (R-UT), is floor manger of the bill. But they are out of time when her turn to speak comes up. When given just 1 minute of floor time, she cheerfully accepts and proceeds to explain why Wall Street special interests were trying to kill the bill. In plain talk, she explains that if Wall Street could stop the bill and things got worse in Puerto Rico, then a federal bailout would be necessary.

Simply watching and discussing this debate in class as you might watch and discuss a film has value for civics classes. Here are some homework and in-class activities to round it out for social studies, communication, and digital literacy lessons:

  • Have students choose one speaker, use the search function at the C-Span website to find that speaker’s sections, and summarize the main point made by their chosen speaker.
  • Research which speakers represent the Republican and Democratic parties. Use the student summaries from the previous activity to identify the differences between the two parties’ positions on the legislation.
  • Many of the speakers criticize Congress. Analyze their criticisms and discuss or debate them.
  • One of the contentious points in this bill is the option it gives to the Governor of Puerto Rico to reduce the minimum wage for younger workers. Have students identify the positions given in the discussion, research the issue further online, prepare for, and hold a debate on this specific point.
  • Pedro Pierluisi, the only representative Puerto Rico has in Congress, summarizes the issues in the bill. Challenge students to consider whether Pierluisi’s views are different from those who are not representing Puerto Rico. Have students identify specific examples from the debate to support their answer to this question.
  • PROMESA, which stands for “Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act,”  is an acronym using the Spanish word for “promise” as the name for the bill. Challenge students to come up with other possible names, and discuss how different names might affect the perception of the bill.
  • Some speakers point out that a bipartisan bill must be a compromise and is unlikely to please everyone. Discuss the concept of checks and balances in the U.S. government, and consider the idea of a bipartisan compromise bill as an example.
  • Some of the speakers use an emotional tone, while others take a more rational position. Ask students which is more effective. Then analyze an example of each approach and compare the two. If your class has discussed logos and pathos, return to that discussion with the floor debate as examples.

This is bipartisanship at its absolute best, and very rare in today’s political climate.  Whether or not the U.S. Senate will follow suit remains an unanswered question, but the prospects for passage of this legislative compromise should become increasingly clear in the coming weeks.

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