The U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee’s hearing today on legislation to address the fiscal problems of government in Puerto Rico demonstrated the extent of differences among Republicans as well as between Democrats and Republicans on the measure, H.R. 4900, introduced late yesterday by Representative Sean Duffy (R-WI).
Only four Republicans other than the principal author, Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (UT), seemed to be in favor of the bill. They were: Reps. Raul Labrador (ID), who was born in Puerto Rico; Garret Graves (LA); Bruce Westerman (AR); and Doug LaMalfa (CA).
By contrast, negative statements or questions came from: Reps. Doug Lamborn (CO); Rob Wittman (VA); Louie Gohmert (TX); John Fleming (LA); Tom McClintock (CA); Jeff Duncan (SC); Jody Hice (GA); and Delegate Amata Radewagen (AS), although hers were about the non-inclusion of provisions for Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Child Tax Credit, and Medicaid equality for the territories, and the objections of the others primarily concerned the forced debt adjustment provisions. Issues they raised included the rights of creditors, enabling bankruptcy for bonds bought when bankruptcy was not an option, the board that the bill would establish being able to reprioritize types of debt for payment purposes, the bill not including substantial measures to reverse Puerto Rico’s continuing economic decline, and bankruptcy for the territory’s ‘state’-level bonds, setting a precedent for bankruptcy for debts of States.
Counselor to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Antonio Weiss expressed serious concerns about the bill’s creditor collective action provisions delaying restructuring; its stay on legal action to force government in Puerto Rico to pay debts being limited to February 15, 2017 and possibly not lasting until restructuring; and the support of a supermajority of five of seven board members required to force debt restructuring. He also asserted that the bill needed to provide more assurance that pensions would be paid and objected to its $4.25 per hour for up to five years minimum wage for workers in Puerto Rico under age 25.
Weiss also estimated that a debt restructuring process under the bill could take two years and said that he would be meeting with Bishop and staff right after the hearing to work out the concerns with the bill that he noted.
Ranking Minority Member Raul Grijalva (AZ) and other Democrats generally echoed concerns raised by Weiss. Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi was clear that he could accept a board that would have the final decision on actions of government in Puerto Rico affecting finances if the bill’s restructuring language “would work.”
Non-Committee Member Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), however, said that board authority with respect to laws, regulations, and contracts went to an “insulting” extent, objected to there not being a witness from the Government of Puerto Rico at the hearing, and objected to the lack of economic provisions, such as the EITC. “This is not a democracy,” she added.
Rep. Jared Polis (CO) advocated for statehood for Puerto Rico, tax incentives for manufacturing in the territory, and Medicaid funding. He was explicit in noting that Puerto Rico’s territorial status is a problem.
Rep. William Clay (MO) expressed a desire for provisions to ensure pension payments.
Rep. Niki Tsongas (MA) noted her concern about a provision of the bill that would transfer 3,100 acres of the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to local control — which had been recommended to Congress by the FWS in 2000 with President Bill Clinton’s personal support but which the FWS now opposes. Rep. Tsongas also recognized her large Puerto Rican constituency.
Rep. Norma Torres (CA) decried the bill’s wage provisions, and Del. Madeleine Bordallo (GU) cited the non-inclusion of Medicaid, EITC, and pension provisions as a serious problem with the bill.
The Committee’s markup of the bill originally scheduled for 10:00 tomorrow morning to consider amendments and take votes has been postponed. No new date has been set.