The Puerto Rico Status Act: After the Vote

The Puerto Rico Status Act, a proposal compiled from two Puerto Rico status bills introduced during the current Congress, is pending before Congress and awaits consideration in a key committee.

The options on the ballot, the definition of each option, and the fate of U.S. citizenship in a sovereign nation of Puerto Rico have been controversial issues and the focus of much of the debate over the proposal.

But there are more to the bills.  There are also sections discussing the implementation of whichever option is chosen.

If the Act passes in its current form, voters in Puerto Rico will have a chance to choose among three options for their future:

  • independence
  • free association
  • statehood

The bill is designed to be self-executing. That is, whichever option is chosen by the voters, Congress is directed to follow through and implement that option. The current territorial status is not on the table.

After the vote

Regardless of which option wins, the U.S. government under the direction of the President will initiate a review of Federal law with respect to Puerto Rico, including individual and corporate taxation, health care, housing, transportation, education and entitlement programs. The executive branch will submit related recommendations to Congress for changes to Federal laws.

If either of the sovereign options are choosen –  independence or free association – the Puerto Rico legislature will establish a Constitutional Convention to draft a new Constitution for the new nation of Puerto Rico.  Neither the current Puerto Rico constitution nor the U.S. Constitution will apply in the new nation.

Both the options that would create a sovereign Puerto Rico would nonetheless involve the U.S. for the transition.  Under independence, a Joint US-Puerto Rico Transition Committee will be created to transition all federal functions to Puerto Rico. This may be a process similar to the one the Philippines went through when it gained independence in 1946.

If voters choose free association, a Bilateral Negotiation Commission will be created to devise a comprehensive agreement to govern bilateral relations. This group will include people from both the United States and the new nation of Puerto Rico. They will draft the Articles of Free Association, which must then be approved by Congress.

If statehood wins this referendum as it has the last three, Puerto Rico will be admitted to the U.S. upon Presidential proclamation.  The current Constitution of Puerto Rico would remain in place and the U.S. Constitution will apply fully to the new State of Puerto Rico.

Benefits

The definition of independence with or without free association holds that veterans’ benefits, social security payments and the like will not be interrupted by the declaration of sovereignty for Puerto Rico, but will continue under an agreement between the United States and Puerto Rico.

Veterans of the U.S. army who were citizens of the Philippines under independence were originally expected to keep their federal veterans’ benefits, but that changed during the transition and they did not receive those benefits after independence.

The Act also holds that the same amount currently provided to Puerto Rico in the form of federal payments of any kind should continue as block grants for ten years, after which the amounts should be reduced by 10% each year until, 20 years after independence, Puerto Rico is self-sufficient.

The terms for independence and free association differ only in that the Act acknowledges that either party in the Compact of Free Association has the power to reject the deal at any time.

The pending proposal does not force the United States to agree to the financial terms planned for the new nation of Puerto Rico – it cannot do so. The details would have to be worked out between the two nations in the form of a treaty. The terms cannot actually be settled before the voters of Puerto Rico vote on the status question. This means that voters cannot be certain of the outcome of this aspect of the bill before they make their decisions if they choose seperate sovereignty for Puerto Rico.

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