What a Congressional Bilateral Negotiating Commission Could Do in Puerto Rico

negotiating commission

There are currently two bills in the U.S. House of Representatives that seek to resolve Puerto Rico’s status as a territory of the U.S. The first proposal introduced, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act (HR 1522) asks Congress to respond to the November 2020 referendum, in which statehood won with more than 52% of the vote.

A competing proposal is called the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act (HR 2070).  The proposal does not recognize the 2020 vote held in Puerto Rico.  It instead recognizes the Puerto Rican legislature’s “inherent authority” to call a status convention.

Despite its title, the bill does not grant a new “self-determination” right to Puerto Rico’s legislature.  Congress provided local autonomy to Puerto Rico in 1952 by approving the territory’s constitution.  In fact, the Puerto Rican legislature already had the right to call for a status convention in 2020 when it, instead, chose to hold the plebiscite vote.

Congressional Bilateral Negotiating Commission

One feature of the new federal “self-determination” proposal is the establishment of a new Congressional Bilateral Negotiating Commission, a group of U.S. federal officials selected by congressional leaders to advise the local convention delegates.

The bill specifies which U.S. officials would be included on this Commission:

  • the top Democrat and top Republican of the House Natural Resources Committee and Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee
  • a member of Congress selected by each of the following congressional leaders, for a total of four additional Commission members: the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Senate Majority Leader and Senate Minority Leader.  Each of these four representatives must represent states or congressional districts that are among the nation’s top ten in terms of Puerto Rican populations.
  • the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico
  • a representative from both the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior, each chosen with the consent of the Speaker of the House and the majority leader of the Senate

The Commission’s Duties

The Commission must meet with the delegates periodically upon their request. A simple majority of the delegates can call a meeting, but a delegate representing “each of the self-determination options” must be represented in the meeting.

There are no requirements on valid self-determination options or limits on the number of options, apparently providing any delegate broad authority to justify inclusion.

The Commission must submit status reports to Congress on a regular basis and make these reports public.

Recommendations

The law provides a new degree of federal involvement in Puerto Rico’s local affairs by granting the new congressional commission authority to make recommendations to convention delegates on policies related to Puerto Rico’s culture and language.

The new commission also has the authority to make recommendations on constitutional issues such as Puerto Rico’s judicial system and the applicability of U.S. citizenship of Puerto Ricans.

Despite decades of statements from members of Congress regarding the Constitutional limits on self-determination options for Puerto Rico, there are also no basic Constitutional parameters to guide the new federal status convention.

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