The chairman of the U.S. Senate committee with lead responsibility for the political status of territories yesterday said that Puerto Rico’s status issue could only be resolved through a Puerto Rican choice of statehood or nationhood.
Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) opened and closed a hearing of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Puerto Rico’s status plebiscite last November and the Obama Administration’s response with a call for such a choice.
He and the other members of the Committee who spoke recognized that Puerto Ricans rejected continuing territory status in the plebiscite. In the balloting, 54% of the vote was against continuing the current status.
Wyden and Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) repeatedly said that the plebiscite left Puerto Rico with three options: statehood and nationhood through independence or through an association with the U.S. that either nation could end. In the plebiscite, statehood won 61.2% of the vote among the alternatives, nationhood in a free association with the U.S. got 33.3%, and independence 5.5%.
Committee Ranking Minority Member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) did not go as far as saying continuing territory status should be off the table because of the rejection. She suggested that whether to continue to consider territory status along with the options to resolve the issue should be a Puerto Rican decision.
But Murkowski agreed with the other senators that the current “Commonwealth” is a territory status and that the Puerto Rico ‘commonwealth’ party’s proposal for a new “Commonwealth status” is impossible for constitutional and other reasons.
Murkowski recalled that she had joined with the Committee’s last chairman in identifying Puerto Rico’s real options. Wyden pointed out that the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Justice Department, and the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama Administrations had also rejected the new “Commonwealth status” proposal as unconstitutional.
Alluding to claims of the ‘commonwealth’ and independence parties that statehood had won a plurality of the vote instead of the supermajority certified by the tri-partisan territorial Elections Commission, Wyden agreed with President Obama’s proposal to resolve the dispute through a Federally-sponsored referendum.
The Obama plebiscite would be on a status option or options that would “resolve” the issue. The Republican-dominated U.S. House committee of jurisdiction has approved the proposal.
The option or options would be proposals of the insular Elections Commission but only to the extent that the U.S. Justice Department agrees the proposals do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.
Wyden explained that this “is essential to ensuring that the proposed new ‘commonwealth status’ or a proposal with similar features will not be on the ballot.”
Under the “commonwealth” proposal, the U.S. would be bound to Puerto Rico being able to nullify Federal laws and court jurisdiction and to enter into international agreements as if it were a nation. The U.S. would also have to grant Puerto Rico greater economic benefits than at present and to continue to grant U.S. citizenship.
Referring to the ‘commonwealth’ party, Committee Chairman Wyden advised that, “Persistence in supporting this option … undermines resolution of Puerto Rico’s status question.”
He also said that the Obama plebiscite should reflect that Puerto Rico’s remaining status options after rejecting territory status are statehood and nationhood. He suggested the vote be “Yes” or “No” on both statehood and nationhood.
The Chairman also judged that, “After 115 years, its clearly time for Puerto Rico to determine what political path it will take.”
He said that not having a decision on eventual statehood or nationhood contributes to Puerto Rico’s economic and social problems. And he recalled that President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status found that “identifying the most effective means of assisting the Puerto Rican economy depends on resolving” the question.
Wyden also said that the current territory status known as “commonwealth”, “undermines the United States’ moral standing in the world” because “nearly four million U.S. citizens do not have a vote in the government that makes the national laws which affect their daily lives.”
The witnesses at the hearing were the presidents of Puerto Rico’s three political parties: the ‘commonwealth’ party’s Alejandro Garcia Padilla, the territory’s new governor; the statehood party’s Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s elected representative to the Federal government; and the Independence Party’s Ruben Berrios.
The Obama Administration was asked to send a representative to testify but did not. Administration testimony would have embarrassed Garcia since: the Administration supported the plebiscite; the President’s spokesman said that it demonstrated Puerto Ricans want to resolve the issue and statehood won a majority among the alternatives to the current status; and the President’s Status Task Force reported that Puerto Rico would remain a territory under any “Commonwealth” arrangement and the new “commonwealth status” proposal is unconstitutional.
As it was, Garcia was on a far different wavelength than the senators. He disputed that Puerto Rico was a territory and that the new “commonwealth status” proposal had been found unconstitutional by Federal authorities. He cited snippets of statements by past Federal officials that have since been superseded or were made before his party adopted the proposal.
When repeatedly asked to explain the proposal or even identify any elements, he could not and merely referred to old proposals that had failed to pass Federal approval.
He appeared to try to mislead senators when Heinrich asked if the current proposal would allow Puerto Rico to limit the application of Federal laws. The Governor vaguely suggested that there could be a process for joint determination of which laws would apply. This, of course, would enable Puerto Rico to make the ultimate decision.
A frustrated Heinrich finally said that Garcia had “danced semantically around the question [of what the new “commonwealth status” would do] long enough.”
Berrios brought additional clarity to the question by commenting that the proposal was “juridical hocus pocus … bull” but really just another name for territory status.
Garcia also puzzled senators by arguing that proposals such as Wyden’s Statehood: Yes or No and Nationhood: Yes or No vote and Pierluisi’s Statehood: Yes or No vote House bill would “disenfranchise commonwealth.” And he perplexingly compared the proposals to racial segregation.
Pierluisi pointed out that Garcia’s assertion was “nonsense” because voters could as easily vote “No” as “Yes.” And Wyden noted that Garcia’s predecessor as ‘commonwealth’ party president had called for a Statehood: Yes or No plebiscite before the Committee just three years ago.
Garcia and Berrios both contended that Puerto Rico would be a “ghetto” under statehood, although Berrios called it a ghetto under the current territory status as well.
Berrios also seemed ‘out-of-sync’ with the Committee members by asserting that they and Congress would not agree that statehood is an option for Puerto Rico. All of the senators present said or seemed to regard statehood as a leading option.
The longtime Independence Party president was additionally out of touch with House members. Later yesterday, Pierluisi announced that the number of House members co-sponsoring his bill for a Statehood: Yes or No vote and to require the President to submit a statehood admission bill to Congress if the vote is “Yes” had grown to 115.
The arguments of Garcia and Berrios that statehood is not an option for Puerto Rico prompted Heinrich to ask whether Puerto Ricans should vote on whether the territory should become a part of the U.S. Although Puerto Rico is treated as a State in many laws, it is an unincorporated territory, a possession rather than a part of the U.S.
Territories that are part of the U.S. are destined for statehood – a question that has not been answered for Puerto Rico, which also has the option of nationhood.
Heinrich explained that Puerto Ricans could choose between independence and nationhood in a non-binding association with the U.S. if a majority of the vote on whether to become a part of the U.S. was “No.”
After the hearing, Committee Member Joe Manchin III (D-West Virginia), who was not present, issued a written statement contending that Puerto Rico’s plebiscite had not been impartial and inclusive. The statement did not explain how since the plebiscite included all four of the possible status options, neutrally described. But Manchin expressed confidence in Garcia.
He also agreed with the Governor that other issues were higher priorities than the territory’s status, disagreeing with Committee Chairman Wyden.