Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, released a statement commending the revival of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico.
“The Biden administration has committed to resolving the serious issues affecting the territory and its residents, and I sincerely commend them for this decision,” Grijalva said. “I look forward to supporting the Task Force’s work, and I encourage the Biden administration to assign full-time staff to support it. The most effective version of this task force would also provide advice on policies and initiatives to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status and advance the island’s fiscal recovery, and I hope its mandate includes these vital roles.”
The history of the Task Force
The Clinton administration established the first President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico, and the Bush and Obama administrations continued the tradition, producing official reports in 2005, 2007, and 2011.
Each of these Task Forces focused on the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status. In his 2011 visit to Puerto Rico, President Obama said, “First of all, we’ve addressed the question of political status. In March, a report from our presidential task force on Puerto Rican status provided a meaningful way forward on this question so that the residents of the island can determine their own future. And when the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you.”
Each of the reports included the same basic conclusion on Puerto Rico’s status: statehood or independence (with or without a free association relationship) are the non-territorial options possible under the U.S. Constitution. As the 2007 report concluded, “[T]he ‘new commonwealth’ proposal that some have proposed contemplates a political status for Puerto Rico that is not permitted by the United States constitution.”
This conclusion has been the same regardless of which political party controlled the White House. The 2007 report was released during the presidency of George W. Bush. Four years later, the Obama White House agreed: “[T]he Task Force took a fresh look at the issues, including the constitutional questions central to prior reports, and concluded that the permissible status options include Statehood, Independence, Free Association, and Commonwealth,” noting specifically that a mutual consent provision “would not be enforceable because a future Congress could choose to alter that relationship unilaterally.”
A referendum in 2012 resulted in a vote against the current territorial status and for statehood, but Congress did not take action in response. Another referendum was held in 2017 and another in 2020; both resulted in statehood wins.
The Trump Administration did not activate the Task Force.
The new Task Force
Biden’s Interagency Working Group on Puerto Rico has met once. The White House has said that the new Task Force will work on economic and infrastructure issues, but Grijalva made it clear that status should also be considered.
The Natural Resources Committee plans to review both status bills now under consideration — HR 1522 and HR 2070 — this fall. Unless a compromise between the two can be crafted, the committee will need to determine which bill should be presented to the full House of Representatives.