Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), the Democratic Leader of the United States Senate, spoke on the Senate floor this morning calling on Republicans to join with Democrats in passing legislation to help Puerto Rico address its severe economic and financial crisis. Below are his remarks:
Eighteen thousand Puerto Ricans served in the Armed Forces in World War I. Sixty-five thousand served in the Second World War. Sixty-one thousand during the Korean War, and 48,000 in the Vietnam War. Since 1917, more than 200,000 American citizens from Puerto Rico have served in the United States Armed Forces, serving every conflict since World War I.
One of the previous leaders of the Senate asked me to go and represent the Senate in a ceremony in Puerto Rico a number of years ago, and they were dedicating a monument to fallen Puerto Ricans who served America in the different wars. I’ve never forgotten that. I have a warm spot in my heart for Puerto Rico. It is a wonderful, wonderful part of our country. I have visited its beautiful rain forests.
But right now, Puerto Rico needs our help. The people of Puerto Rico are drowning in over $72 billion in debt. They have more debt per capita than any U.S. state. The territory is facing a severe economic and fiscal crisis that’s becoming a humanitarian crisis.
Leader Pelosi and I fought to include meaningful provisions in the omnibus spending package to assist Puerto Rico, including empowering the island to readjust a significant portion of its debt. Unfortunately, Republicans refused to work with us to address Puerto Rico’s massive debt in a meaningful way. Instead of seizing the last chance Congress has this year to do the right thing for Puerto Ricans, they turned their back on 3.5 million citizens of the United States who are Puerto Ricans.
To be clear, Puerto Rico doesn’t need a massive check from the taxpayers. This is about giving Puerto Rico and their leaders the same tools that that are currently available in every state. Puerto Rico is part of the United States and the people of Puerto Rico are looking to members of Congress to step in as partners. That’s our job.
The territory is facing a massive $900 million payment on January 1 to its bondholders. Puerto Rico’s Governor said yesterday that the island will default in January or May. We can’t wait.
Next year, likely the first half of 2016, the same period in which Puerto Rico is expected to default on its debt, Congress will present a Congressional Gold Medal in honor of the 65th Infantry Regiment. This regiment, consisting mostly of Puerto Ricans, distinguished itself for remarkable service during the Korean War. It’s shameful to think that Congress can at once recognize the extraordinary contribution of Puerto Ricans who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and then do nothing for Puerto Rico when they turn to us for help in a time of crisis.
Inaction is not an option. Puerto Rico needs this to work and so does Congress. As Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner said, “This is not just a Puerto Rican problem. This is an American problem requiring an American solution.”
We can do something to help. We must do something to help. We can work together to pass legislation that allows Puerto Rico to restructure a substantial portion of its debt without costing the American taxpayers a penny.
These bonds are not bonds of the United States government. They are people who made investments and like every other investment situation, sometimes they go bad. Theirs went bad because of the economic crash we had a few years ago on Wall Street.
The Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats want to do something to help. We’ve asked Republicans to join us in this effort, but so far they’ve only stood in the way.
Just last week, the senior Senator from New York asked for unanimous consent to adopt the Puerto Rico Chapter 9 Uniform Bankruptcy Act, a bill which would extend chapter 9 to the island and allow it to restructure its municipal debt in the same way the states can. But instead of giving Puerto Rico the same rights as Kentucky, Nevada, and Utah, the Chairman of the Finance Committee from Utah blocked this critical legislation.
I understand there are important issues that must be discussed such as the nature and scope of the authority, but to deny Puerto Rico any restructuring authority as Republicans have done is negligent. I hope recent comments by Republican leaders, including Speaker Ryan, will translate into meaningful action. Senate Democrats are ready to work across the aisle towards a real solution for Puerto Rico with the understanding that any viable plan will include a federal process that allows Puerto Rico to adjust its debt.
To deny Puerto Rico restructuring authority is not just bad for Puerto Rico, but bad for creditors as well. So I say to my Republican colleagues let’s work together to extend a helping hand to our fellow citizens of Puerto Rico. It should be on this bill that we’re going to vote on tomorrow. Giving the people of Puerto Rico the tools necessary to resolve this fiscal crisis is the right thing to do. It’s the moral thing to do.