Bill Nelson spoke about Puerto Rico on the floor of the U.S. Senate last week, expressing disappointment that Congress hasn’t acted to address the fiscal problems plaguing Puerto Rico. In his remarks,
Mr. President, a number of my colleagues will be coming to the floor in just a while to talk about the crisis that is going on in the island territory of Puerto Rico. Remember, Puerto Rico is a territory. Its citizens are U.S. citizens, and we often forget that, particularly as they are now facing economic challenges that are growing worse by the day. Although we just had an opportunity in the Omnibus appropriations bill to address Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis, it appears that Congress is going to go home without having done the bare minimum for Puerto Rico.
In the meantime, Puerto Rico is going to start the New Year on the verge of default as the Governor faces the troubling choice of whether to pay for essential public services or make a $1 billion debt payment to Wall Street creditors. The public services include those for health, fire, police, water, et cetera, versus paying the bonds that are coming due. Many of us have been urging our colleagues for months—Senator Durbin, Senator Cantwell, Senator Schumer, and myself—to meaningfully address this fiscal crisis by providing Puerto Rico with the same debt restructuring authority that is available to any other State under chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code. This is the authority that Puerto Rico had until it was taken away by Congress without any explanation 30 years ago. That is why I have joined Senator Cantwell, who is here, and Senators Schumer and Blumenthal, in introducing legislation that would allow Puerto Rico’s municipalities and public corporations to restructure its debt under the watchful eye of the Federal bankruptcy judge.
This is not a bailout. Providing Puerto Rico with an opportunity to orderly manage its debt as we do for every State under chapter 9 of the bankruptcy laws costs the Federal Government nothing. It also prevents Puerto Rico from having a drawn-out battle with bond holders following a potential default. Yet nowhere in the Omnibus appropriations bill, where we have a lot of other stuff—nowhere in the omnibus appropriations bill—is there anything to give Puerto Rico the legitimate orderly process of chapter 9 in bankruptcy that it needs. There are a few provisions to help Puerto Rico’s hospitals, but even they don’t go far enough.
It deeply troubles me that we will celebrate the holidays knowing full well that there is so much more that the Congress could have done. I would like to put this in perspective. Just a few weeks ago we met with a group of Floridians who were here for the National Day of Action for Puerto Rico. What they describe—and what this Senator has seen in a visit to Puerto Rico and the government in San Juan a month ago—is a humanitarian crisis due to the crushing government debt, a failing economy, and a growing poverty.
What is the result? Thousands of Puerto Ricans—U.S. citizens—are coming to my State. They are certainly welcome, but these are often the very talented, educated people that are so desperately needed for the well-being of the population on the island. Some that come are fortunate to move in with relatives. Others are living in motels. Others are even living out of their cars. A lot of them come to central Florida to the metro Orlando area, where there is a huge Puerto Rican population. What we see in the discrepancy and the economic despair that is happening on the island is absolutely heartbreaking. How in the world can we fail our fellow Americans like this?
Notice who have been the most courageous in the military? It has often been the soldiers who are Puerto Rican. These Americans have contributed to the diverse fabric of our country, and they proudly serve in so many Federal responsibilities, including our military.
We should be doing all that we can to provide them with the tools they need—the financial tools Puerto Rico needs to emerge from its current economic challenges—and debt restructuring authority is one of those things. I want to urge our colleagues, since we didn’t get it into the omnibus, in the spirit of our patriotic unity to help each other and that unity that binds all Americans, to come together and help Puerto Rico at this critical time.
I see my colleague from the State of Washington. I appreciate the leadership that she has taken. My State is one of the ones that is most affected. Her State is not as affected, and yet the Senator from Washington has stepped up and done this because she knows it is the right thing to do. Mr. President, I yield the floor and look forward to hearing from the Senator.