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Puerto Rico: In the Hands of Congress

Resident Commissioner Pedro R. Pierluisi delivered the speech recorded here in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives this morning. In it, he does not mince words about the needs of Puerto Rico or the responsibilities of the Congress.

“As an advocate of statehood for Puerto Rico, I am a proud American citizen,” Pierluisi said, “but protesting the mistreatment of my people will always take precedence over being polite.”

Pierluisi acknowledged that Puerto Rico has some responsibility for the current fiscal problems, which have been partially caused by a “lack of discipline and transparency” on the part of the Island’s leadership. But he also insisted that the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, which he called “a national disgrace,” is at fault.

The relationship between the federal government and Puerto Rico allows you to treat us decently whenever it suits you, and to treat us poorly whenever it does not.  We live at your whim, subject to your impulses, which are bound by virtually no legal rules or moral standards.  If there is a silver lining in this crisis, it is that the crisis has caused a clear majority of my constituents to conclude that the relationship between the federal government and Puerto Rico must change.  Puerto Rico must have equality in this union or independence outside of it.  No longer should we be reduced to begging this Congress for crumbs, and hoping you throw some our way.  We must get off our knees, stand up straight, look you in the eyes, and say “No more.”

“[U]ntil Puerto Rico becomes a state or a sovereign nation,” Pierluisi continued, “our fate rests largely in the hands of Congress.”  He reminded his colleagues that he had introduced bills that would give Puerto Rico the tools it needs to regain control over their economy. “If Congress declines to act,” he said, “it will not be because my colleagues did not have options to choose from; it will be because they made a conscious decision not to choose at all.”

Pierluisi also noted that “[f]ederal action is necessary to prevent a default by the Puerto Rico government on its obligations to creditors, which would be a catastrophic event for all parties.”  He urged Congress to “authorize Puerto Rico to restructure a meaningful portion of its bonded debt, but in a way that honors the territory’s constitution,” explaining that “[s]uch authority can be provided at no cost to American taxpayers.”  If there is a cost, Pierluisi added, he would “not oppose the creation of a temporary, independent board that respects the Puerto Rico government’s primary role in crafting its budget and making fiscal policy, but that is authorized to ensure that the Puerto Rico government complies with appropriate budgeting standards and fiscal metrics.”

“Ultimately,” Pierluisi said, “what Puerto Rico needs is good elected leadership, not heavy-handed federal intervention that further erodes democracy in the territory.”

The Resident Commissioner reiterated the needs of the territory — the same or similar treatment as the states receive under federal health and other safety-net programs, federal tax credit programs, and the federal law that authorizes debt restructuring — and concluded with, “It is in the national interest for Congress to act—and to act now.”


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