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Remembering Rep. Don Young

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) has died at the age of 88. He was the longest-serving member of Congress, having been first elected in 1973. With 24 terms completed, Rep. Young was the longest-serving Republican in history.

Rep. Young moved to Alaska from his native California shortly after Alaska became a state, and his experience with the transition from territory to state influenced his feelings on Puerto Rico. “We’ve neglected Puerto Rico for over 100 years; a territory that should be a state,” he said. “I say shame on us.”

In 2007, he explained: “[M]y goal here is to really try to allow Puerto Rico to advance.  And I do not believe you can advance as a commonwealth.  I say that from my heart.  Because we [Alaska] were not able to advance as a commonwealth.  We were a territory.  And my goal is to listen to the Puerto Rican people, listen to witnesses like we have today.  But my ultimate goal is to try to give the Puerto Rican people a choice.  And my bill, H.R. 900, does give them a choice.  And if they decide to be an independent nation, God bless you. If you decide to be a state, God bless you.  If you decide to be a commonwealth, you are not going to grow.”

The 1998 United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act

In 1997, Young introduced H.R. 856, the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, intended “to provide a process leading to full self-government for Puerto Rico.”

“In recognition of the significant level of local self-government which has been attained by Puerto Rico, and the responsibility of the Federal Government to enable the people of the territory to freely express their wishes regarding political status and achieve full self-government,” the bill stated, “this Act is adopted with a commitment to encourage the development and implementation of procedures through which the permanent political status of the people of Puerto Rico can be determined.”

Although Rep. Young’s bill passed the House, it did not move in the Senate and never became law.  Yet Rep. Young’s leadership propelled the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status forward.

The bill called for a referendum giving the voters of Puerto Rico a choice among statehood, independence, or “commonwealth,” originally defined as the current territorial relationship.

Later versions of the bill included a “commonwealth” option defined in part by this statement: “Puerto Rico is joined in a relationship with and under the national sovereignty of the United States. It is the policy of the Congress that this relationship should only be dissolved by mutual consent…Under this political relationship, Puerto Rico like a State is an autonomous political entity, sovereign over matters not ruled by the Constitution of the United States.”

This was the unconstitutional and unviable “enhanced commonwealth,” which could not be implemented by Congress. “It is ridiculous to suggest that the United States would ever agree to a commonwealth with permanent union between Puerto Rico and the United States,” Young said  “Only by being incorporated into the body politic of the United States can Puerto Rico be considered to be in permanent union.  We are a democracy united by a Constitution which extends equal protection, rights, and privileges to all.  The United States will not set aside over two centuries of reliance upon this near-sacred document to be ‘bound by a bilateral pact that could not be altered, except by mutual consent.’”

Young was clear on the options available to Puerto Rico. “The people were presented a mythical commonwealth option which proposed significant changes to the current relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States,” he said of the previous plebiscites. “It is unfortunate that the voters have faced unrealistic and inflated expectations of a supposed commonwealth relationship with the United States. However, this has become an opportunity to set the record straight; to quell the commonwealth fantasy status which continues to be promoted to the detriment of the society it is purported to help. While it is true that the United States-Puerto Rico relationship shares many things in common, no permanent union secured by an unalterable bilateral pact with irrevocable American citizenship is possible under any variation of the proposed commonwealth formula. Our U.S. Constitution provides the only avenue for irrevocable U.S. citizenship, total equality, and permanent union.”

By the time a plebiscite vote was taken in December 1998, the choices had resolved into the following:

  • .06%              Current territory status
  • .1%                  Free association
  • 2.5%               Independence
  • 46.5%            Statehood
  • 50.3%            None of the Above

Young’s report on the outcome of the plebiscite described the results as “inconclusive” and called for Congress to try again.

Mourned on both sides of the aisle

“Don was a force of nature—an historic and unique figure in a body of standouts,” Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said. “Although we stood opposed on many policy matters, we were friends.”

This remark is typical of the responses of Young’s colleagues in the House and Senate. Young was known for his sense of humor and his friendships with Democrats and Republicans alike.

He was preparing to run for Congress again when he died on his way home to Alaska.

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