Vermont Senator and Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has come forward with a plan for Puerto Rico.
The Sanders plan states that “As president, Bernie will fight for a U.S. congressionally-sanctioned and binding referendum where the Puerto Rican people would be able to decide on whether to become a state, an independent country, or to reform the current Commonwealth agreement. ”
“Commonwealth” is a word in the official title of the territory of Puerto Rico, just as it is part of the official name of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but that word has no legal meaning or power. Puerto Rico is a United States territory. There is no special “commonwealth” status, and there is no “commonwealth agreement” which can be reformed. What’s more, the U.S. government has repeatedly explained that the idea of such an agreement is unconstitutional. The two options for Puerto Rico are independence (perhaps with an agreement of Free Association like the one the United States has with Palau), or statehood.
A statement in a recent amicus brief prepared by the U.S. Department of Justice explains this clearly, echoing the statements made through many administrations:
[I]n 1950 Congress permitted the people of Puerto Rico to adopt a constitution, which Congress approved with revisions in 1952. Those events were of profound significance for the relationship between the United States and Puerto 8 Rico, but they did not alter Puerto Rico’s constitutional status as a U.S. territory. The United States did not cede its sovereignty over Puerto Rico by admitting it as a State or granting it independence. Rather, Congress authorized Puerto Rico to exercise governance over local affairs. That arrangement can be revised by Congress, and federal and Puerto Rico officials understood that Puerto Rico’s adoption of a constitution did not change its constitutional status.
Some members of the U.S. House and Senate have spoken up for statehood for Puerto Rico, but a more popular statement is that Puerto Rico should have a choice. This sounds good on the surface, but there are some problems with these statements.
First, Puerto Rico has no choice without action by Congress. Under the Territorial Clause(Article IV) of the U.S. Constitution, Congress “shall have the power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.”
Second, the voters of Puerto Rico chose statehood in a referendum in 2012, with 54% of voters saying that they did not want to continue as a territory and 61% of those who chose a status opting for statehood. These majorities are far greater than those we’ve seen in most of the state primaries this year, and the turnout was far greater, but even though the White House declared it a “clear result,” Congress has yet to act on the 2012 results to make Puerto Rico a state.
Third, federal funding has already been approved in 2014 for a follow up congressionally sanctioned referendum for the people of Puerto Rico to resolve the question of the territory’s ultimate status by voting on status options that are found by the U.S. Department of Justice to not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S. It is now up to the Puerto Rican government to hold the new referundum.
The Sanders plan further calls for
- Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection
- Auditing Puerto Rico’s debt to determine whether any of that debt is unconstitutional under Puerto Rico’s constitution
- Reversing austerity measures already undertaken if they harm “children, senior citizens, and the most vulnerable people”
- Inclusion of Puerto Rico in a proposed national jobs plan
- Transitioning to clean energy from Puerto Rico’s current reliance on fossil fuels
- Extending proposed health and education plans to include Puerto Rico
- Environmental clean up and other support for Vieques