The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations today approved President Obama’s legislation for a plebiscite in Puerto Rico on options that would resolve the question of the territory’s future status.
The Republican-dominated committee included the legislation in its Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2014.
Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) and Representative Jose Serrano (D-New York), who was born in the territory, recommended the inclusion.
Subcommittee Ranking Minority Member Chaka Fattah (D-Pennsylvania) spoke in favor of the measure during the committee meeting.
The legislation would appropriate $2.5 million to the U.S. Department of Justice to be granted to Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission. The funds could only be used to the extent that the Justice Department determines that Commission proposed plebiscite options and explanatory materials do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the United States.
The condition on the funding was proposed by the Obama White House to ensure that the plebiscite does not include a status proposal like the “commonwealth” plans which have confused status plebiscites held under Puerto Rican law only.
Under the ‘commonwealth’ party’s “commonwealth status” plan, the United States would be permanently bound to an arrangement under which Puerto Rico would be able to nullify the application of Federal laws and Federal court jurisdiction and enter into international agreements as if it were a sovereign nation. The U.S. would have to grant the insular government a new subsidy as well as all current benefits to Puerto Ricans.
The Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations have all judged the proposal to be impossible for constitutional and other reasons, as have leaders of the congressional committees of jurisdiction.
The Obama-Committee legislation also casts serious doubt on the inclusion in the plebiscite of Puerto Rico’s current unincorporated territory status, often misleadingly also called “commonwealth.” Since the residents of an unincorporated territory can always petition for statehood or nationhood, the current status cannot “resolve” the status issue.
Further, not even the ‘commonwealth’ party wants continued territory status, and President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, like previous Federal administrations, reported that Puerto Rico would constitutionally have to remain subject to congressional governing authority under the Constitution’s Territory Clause under any “Commonwealth” arrangement.
Puerto Rico held a plebiscite under local law at the time of last November’s elections for office. Voters rejected the current territory status by 54% and chose statehood among the possible alternatives by 61.2%.
The Obama White House publicly recognized these results but proposed another plebiscite because the ‘commonwealth’ party governor and legislative majority narrowly elected in November threatened to generate opposition in Congress to implementing the status choice of Puerto Ricans.
It was feared that the opposition would doom an implementation bill for the plebiscite choice because minority opposition can block approval of a bill in Congress.
‘Commonwealth’ party leaders and lobbyists also tried to undermine the Obama proposal but failed with the House committee.
In 2000, earlier party leaders and lobbyists failed in opposing very similar legislation when proposed by President Clinton and agreed to in a Congress in which Republicans held the majority in both the House and the Senate.