Puerto Rico’s representative to the Federal government has advised President Obama that the plebiscite on the territory’s ultimate political status authorized by a new Federal law should be on U.S. statehood.
Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, who heads the territory’s statehood party, sent Obama a letter making the suggestion shortly after the party’s leadership settled on the idea.
The vote authorized in the new law can be on one or more of the options of statehood, independence, and nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation can end. Only these options would qualify because the plebiscite is limited to options that can “resolve” the question of Puerto Rico’s status.
Puerto Rico’s current status — territory but often misleadingly called “Commonwealth” after a word in the formal name of the insular government — would not qualify for the Federal plebiscite because Puerto Ricans can always seek statehood or nationhood as long as Puerto Rico is a territory.
In addition, a non-territory ‘developed’ or ‘enhanced’ “Commonwealth status” that Puerto Rico’s “Commonwealth” party wants would not qualify because, in the words of President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, Puerto Rico would remain subject to congressional authority under the Constitution’s Territory Clause. A 2011 report by the Task Force, prior presidential administrations, and congressional leaders have all rejected the unprecedented “Commonwealth status” proposal as impossible for constitutional and other reasons.
The argument for having a plebiscite on the statehood option alone is that it received far more support than both of the nationhood options combined in a plebiscite conducted under local law in 2012.
A ‘Statehood: Yes or No’ vote would pit statehood against the current territorial status as well as the nationhood options. The 2012 plebiscite rejected Puerto Rico’s current status, demonstrated more support for statehood than the current status, and chose statehood among the possible alternatives to territory status.
The final option or options for the plebiscite are to be determined by Puerto Rico’s tripartisan Elections Commission to the extent that the U.S. Department of Justice determines that the Commission’s option proposal or proposals do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.
Obama proposed the plebiscite in his Fiscal Year 2014 Budget because the territory’s new governor and legislative majorities, narrowly elected at the time of the 2012 insular plebiscite, dispute the 2012 vote. The President supported the 2012 plebiscite and the White House embraced its results but Obama aides were concerned that opposition by the new Puerto Rico officials would prevent action in Congress on the self-determination decision of Puerto Ricans.
The new governor and legislative majorities primarily dispute the plebiscite because it did not include their party’s “Development of the Commonwealth” proposal. Under the proposal, the U.S. would be bound to an arrangement under which Puerto Rico would be able to veto the application of Federal laws and court jurisdiction and enter into international agreements as if it were a sovereign nation while the U.S. provides greater economic benefits than at present, continuing other benefits and U.S. citizenship.
The new governor and legislative majorities also dispute the 2012 plebiscite because it described Puerto Rico’s current status as “territorial”. They contend that Puerto Rico is not a territory, although the U.S. Supreme Court as well as successive presidents and congressional authorities have said that Puerto Rico remains subject to congressional authority under the Constitution’s Territory Clause even though, like other territories, it has been authorized to exercise self-government on local matters.
A plebiscite under U.S. Justice Department auspices would be difficult to dispute.
Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla has suggested that he will seek to hold a plebiscite under the new Federal law but only after holding a local government status assembly.
A few years ago, his “Commonwealth” party asked congressional committees to authorize an up-or-down vote on statehood when Pierluisi proposed Federal authorization for a referendum similar to the plebiscite that the Government of Puerto Rico wound up conducting under local law in 2012.