U.S. Representative Jose Serrano (D-NY) emphasized to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last Friday that the options that can be included in a Puerto Rican political status plebiscite authorized by a new Federal law have to be able to”resolve” the question of the territory’s ultimate status.
This limits the possible options to statehood, independence, and nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end.
A “Commonwealth” proposal cannot be an option because, as President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status has reported, Puerto Rico would continue to be subject to congressional territory governing authority under any “Commonwealth” arrangement and because Puerto Ricans would continue to be able to petition for statehood or a nationhood option as long as Puerto Rico remains a territory.
Serrano discussed the law with Holder during a hearing of the House Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee on President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget for the Justice Department.
The plebiscite authorization was enacted into law in January through the Fiscal Year 2014 appropriations for the department. It provides $2.5 million for a public vote on a status option or options that can resolve the issue and do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.
The options are to be proposed by the Commonwealth’s Elections Commission, which includes representation from its “Commonwealth,” statehood, and Independence political parties, but must be approved by the Federal Justice Department.
The legislation was proposed by Obama because the territory’s “Commonwealth” party governor and legislature majority very narrowly elected in November 2012 refuse to accept the results of a plebiscite held under local law at the same time as the elections. The plebiscite rejected the territory status option for which now Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla urged votes by 54% and choose statehood among the possible alternatives — statehood, independence, and nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end — by 61.2%.
Appropriations Subcommittee member Serrano played a key role in the enactment of the legislation, along with others including Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Ranking Minority Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA). He worked with Obama aides to include it in the President’s 2014 Budget and with Wolf, Fattah, and others for congressional approval.
The representative from the Bronx, NY emphasized that ‘”resolve’ means exactly that … it can’t mean … more of the same,” referring to the current territory status sometimes misleadingly called “Commonwealth” after the formal name of the insular government. “[I]t’s good for Puerto Rico, but it’s also good for our democracy, to be able to resole this issue once and for all,” Serrano opined.
He pointed out that to people of Puerto Rican origin, “to the New York community, in Chicago, and in all of Latin America, this is something that is being watched very closely.”
Holder responded that “[T]his is obviously a very serious matter … This is something that, I think appropriately, is of concern to us in the Department.”
The most senior U.S. Congress member of Puerto Rican origin, who was born in the territory, also noted that there is “one possible presentation of an option that would not meet constitutional requirements,” referring to the “Commonwealth” party’s status proposal.
Obama’s Puerto Rico Status Task Force, co-chaired by the third-ranking official of the Justice Department, has, like the Task Force under President George W. Bush, the administration of President Clinton who established the Task Force, and congressional committee leaders, reported that the proposal is impossible for constitutional and other reasons.
Under the proposal, Puerto Rico would be in a permanent union with the U.S., although it would be able to enter into agreements with other nations and international organizations as if it were a sovereign nation. Federal laws would apply but Puerto Rico would be able to veto the application of most laws and limit Federal court jurisdiction. Current Federal benefits for individuals in Puerto Rico would continue to apply and additional Federal assistance would be provided. The U.S. would be bound to the terms of the arrangement.
Holder agreed that “it is the Department’s role — the Department’s obligation — to determine whether plebiscite proposals “are compatible with the Constitution, the laws, and the policies of the U.S.”