A recent poll by The Economist found that most Americans are not aware of some basic information about Puerto Rico. For example, fewer than half of respondents knew that people born in Puerto Rico are natural born citizens of the United States. The Wall Street Journal suggests that this is one of the reasons that Congress has been so slow to help Puerto Rico: lawmakers’ constituents don’t know that the people of Puerto Rico are citizens.
The American people have shown that they have compassion for fellow citizens in other States, and for people in other countries as well. The study found that respondents’ willingness to support financial help for Puerto Rico depended on political party affiliation. More than half of Democrats were willing to help and more than half of Republicans were not. In both parties, though, there may have been confusion: Respondents who didn’t realize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens may have been responding to the idea of foreign aid.
In fact, the bill that was passed in the House last week and will now go before the Senate does not provide financial assistance for Puerto Rico. The White House said last year that it would not consider financial support for the territory and no move toward bailing out Puerto Rico has gotten support in Congress.
Instead, PROMESA, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, establishes a financial oversight board and gives that board the opportunity to come up with a debt restructuring plan for Puerto Rico. Since Puerto Rico is excluded from chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, it cannot allow bankruptcy for its municipalities the way States can.
PROMESA, a rare bipartisan bill, has brought controversy. The proposal gives the Governor of Puerto Rico the power to lower the minimum wage for young workers, for example, and some believe that its protection for pensions is insufficient. However, supporters point out that Puerto Rico is not in a position to wait for a new bill. The bills being suggested as alternatives by Bernie Sanders and Bob Menendez are not likely to gain enough traction before the imminent default date of July 1st to protect Puerto Rico from costly legal cases. Supporters of the bill, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, have said that creditor lawsuits could actually lead to a bailout.
Puerto Rico’s financial problems and the public discussion of PROMESA may help Americans — or at least Congress – realize that the people of Puerto Rico are in fact U.S. citizens. This realization could lead Congress towards a different treatment of Puerto Rico.