The House of Representatives has passed the Build Back Better Act and it has gone on to the Senate. There are likely to be changes made in the Senate before the bill goes on to President Biden’s desk.
As approved by the House, the Build Back Better bill would increase Medicaid funding to Puerto Rico, providing $3.6 billion per year and increasing the federal matching of funds to 83%. It would extend SSI funding to Puerto Rico as of January 1st, 2024.
Passage of the Build Back Better Bill will give Puerto Rico something to be thankful for. But is it a permanent solution to the obstacles Puerto Rico faces as a U.S. territory?
Limitations of the Build Back Better Bill
Then-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) said in a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, “Temporary economic advantages can help prepare a society for statehood but can never indefinitely outweigh the civil advantage of full citizenship, which only statehood can confirm. I look to a Puerto Rico that appears at our portals asserting that the obligation of citizenship can never be fully met by a citizenship that is incomplete.”
The Build Back Better Bill provides significant new funding for Puerto Rico. “It is an excellent project,” said Governor Pedro Pierluisi, but he also said that “this is not yet equality.” Resident Commissioner Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon also made the point that the pending legislative proposal merely brings Puerto Rico closer to the levels of funding it would have as a state.
What’s more, Congress can undo these changes in the future. The question of whether Congress has the power under the U.S. Constitution to exclude Puerto Rico from SSI benefits is still being considered by the Supreme Court. If the Court decides that Congress has this power, then a future Congress could once again exclude the territory from these benefits.
Medicaid reimbursement also could be changed back to earlier levels. Benefits to Puerto Rico have been reduced by Congress many times in the past. As a territory, Puerto Rico is not guaranteed equal treatment.
Statehood would make permanent changes
Statehood, unlike the current unincorporated territory status, would put Puerto Rico on an equal footing with the current 50 states. Under the U.S. Constitution, all States must be treated equally.
In the meantime, the Build Back Better Bill will ease the way for the territory of Puerto Rico.