Two members of the U.S. Senate — including the senator with the greatest influence on U.S. territory issues — today proposed legislation committing to statehood for Puerto Rico if Puerto Ricans vote for the status a second time.
The bill is identical to one introduced in the House of Representatives last year that is now sponsored by 130 members of the House.
A member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has lead jurisdiction over statehood and other territory issues, Martin Heinrich (D-NM), introduced the new bill. The Committee Chairman, Ron Wyden (D-OR), joined him.
Wyden is about to become Chairman of the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over taxes — a critical issue for Puerto Rico — and most of the Federal social programs in which Puerto Rico is treated less well than the States.
Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who supports Puerto Rico becoming a part of the United States on an equal basis with the existing States if Puerto Ricans want equality, will succeed him as Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair. The Senate’s Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-NV) is another statehood supporter.
The bill would require the president of the United States to send the Congress a plan to transition Puerto Rico to statehood if Puerto Ricans choose statehood in a “Yes” or “No” vote. It also pledges that the Congress would pass such a plan.
Statehood would inject billions of dollars a year into the territory’s failing economy while extending taxes to a lesser degree. A transition period phasing-in equality is needed to enable the insular economy and the Federal budget to easily accommodate the financial change.
The bill would fit in with a Federal law enacted last month that provides funding for a status plebiscite on a status option or options that would “resolve” the question of the territory’s status and are found by the U.S. Department of Justice to not conflict with the Constitution and basic laws and policies of the U.S.
As the legislation notes, Puerto Ricans voted for statehood by 61.2% in a plebiscite under local law held at the time of the elections for office in the territory and throughout the nation in November 2012. Nationhood in a free association with the U.S. received 33.3% of the vote and independence 4.5%.
Puerto Rico’s current territory status, sometimes misleadingly also called “Commonwealth” after a meaningless word in the official name of the insular government, was also rejected in the plebiscite by 54%.
The territory’s representative to the Federal government, who has a seat in the U.S. House with a vote only in committees, was the top vote getter in the 2012 elections, and heads the territory’s statehood party, Pedro Pierluisi, is the lead sponsor of the House bill on which the new bill is based.
The head of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, Juan Hernandez, however, sharply attacked the bill. Hernandez is a former “Commonwealth” party member of the territorial Senate named by “Commonwealth” party Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla.
He wrote all members of the U.S. Senate asserting that the bill is “exclusionary” even though opponents of statehood would have an equal opportunity to vote along with supporters.
His letter also contended that the question of the territory’s status ought to be put aside while Puerto Rico concentrates on its economic problems and “the bill fails to address the pressing economic needs of the Commonwealth” — even though those problems are caused by its far less than equal treatment in some major Federal programs and its lack of power at the national government level.
Hernandez also wrote, “This bill shows how out of step some Members of Congress are with what will actually help Puerto Rico’s families” although most Puerto Ricans and the territory’s economy and budget are suffering from poor treatment in and exclusion from major Federal programs and decisions.
Wyden and President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status have made the point that overcoming the territory’s serious economic problems requires resolving the question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate status.
Hernandez’s argument that the territory’s status issue should not be resolved now also conflicted with Governor Garcia’s last statement on the issue. The Governor said just weeks ago that he would soon make a proposal that would implement the new Federal plebiscite law and fulfill the “Commonwealth” party’s 2012 Platform.
The Platform promised to call an insular government assembly on the territory’s status if the Federal government did not act on the issue in 2013. President Obama’s plebiscite proposal was approved by Congress and became law 17 days after the end of 2013.
Hernandez’s opposition to Federal “Statehood: Yes or No” plebiscite legislation, additionally, contradicts “Commonwealth” party proposals to Congress just a few years ago. In 2010, the party asked the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to pass such a bill. The year before, it made the same request of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Hernandez’s brother, who heads the “Commonwealth” party’s Federal affairs committee under Gov. Garcia, also spoke out against legislation consistent with the party’s 2009 and 2010 proposals.
The two are sone of former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon, who has argued that Puerto Rico is a “Commonwealth” and not a territory despite U.S. Supreme Court rulings and findings of successive presidents, including President Obama, and congressional authorities and who has joined other close allies of the Governor in sharply criticizing Wyden and other leading U.S. senators.
The options for the plebiscite already authorized by the new Federal law would be proposed by Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission, which includes a representative of each of the territory’s three status-based political parties. One party favors statehood, another independence, and the third is split among members who want a new “Commonwealth status” that Federal officials of both national political parties have repeatedly said is impossible for constitutional and other reasons, members who want nationhood in an association with the U.S., and members who accept Puerto Rico’s status as a territory.
The possible options for the plebiscite under the new law are statehood, independence, and nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation can end.
Territory status is not a possible option because it cannot “resolve” Puerto Rico’s status issue: As long as Puerto Rico is a territory, Puerto Ricans can petition for statehood or nationhood.
The proposed new “Commonwealth” status cannot be an option because it conflicts with the Constitution and basic laws and policies of the U.S.