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Why “Commonwealth” Party Said Donations Swayed Senate Chairman

Leaders of Puerto Rico’s “commonwealth” party Tuesday night reportedly discussed another possible attack on the integrity of the chairman of the lead U.S. Senate committee on the territory’s status.

Monday, Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla’s Secretary General of the party, Senator Jorge Suarez, and another legislator charged that there was a campaign contributions “scheme” between Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Puerto Rico’s statehood party, and the Puerto Rico Statehood Council.

They asserted that it created “a serious conflict of interest … which raises serious questions about” Wyden’s “impartiality” on the question of the territory’s status.  In other words, the commonwealthers claimed that Wyden’s positions on the issue had been improperly influenced by pro-statehood donations for his re-election.

The commonwealthers objected to the respected committee chairman’s recognition that:

  • Puerto Rico is subject to congressional territory governing authority;
  • Its alternatives to territory status are statehood, independence, and nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end;
  • The party’s proposal for a new “commonwealth status” is impossible for constitutional reasons; and
  • 54% of the vote in an insular plebiscite last November was against the current status.

The “commonwealth” party’s leadership does not accept the first three points and urged votes for continued territory status in the plebiscite even though it said that it does not want territory status.

Wyden took the positions that the party leaders dislike at a Committee hearing a week ago.  But the two other senators to speak at the hearing, Committee Ranking Minority Member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), essentially made the same points.

Further, the positions are consistent with those of: President Obama; many other members of Congress; past leaders of the Committee; the full U.S. House of Representatives in different Congresses; the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations; to a large degree the administration of George H.W. Bush; and, to the extent that the positions have been addressed, the U.S. Supreme Court and the independent Government Accountability Office and American Law Division of the Library of Congress.

If anything, Wyden was just clearer in his expressions than some Federal officials have been — but the meaning was the same..

Additionally, the party’s effort to destroy Wyden’s credibility has been met with great skepticism in Puerto Rico.  More damagingly to the party, the assault on Wyden primarily focused more attention on the rejection of the party’s contentions by the three senators and Governor Garcia Padilla’s confusing and evasive presentation of the party leadership’s stances during the hearing.

In any case, Wyden can be counted on to remain the most important U.S. senator on the Puerto Rico status issue during this Congress.

In 2015 — during the second half of the term of Puerto Rico’s current elected officials — he is in line to become chairman (or ranking minority member) of the Finance Committee, which handles most of Puerto Rico’s other most important Federal issues.

So, why would the party consider continuing the false corruption assault on him — let alone making it in the first place?

The Main Reason

The main reason is that the extremely aggressive and baseless strike is a tactic that the party has used with some success in the past to protect its vision of “commonwealth” and derail movements towards statehood — or nationhood.  Dirty smears have gotten some Federal officials to retreat from the subject.

Wyden’s predecessor, Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), told one of Garcia’s predecessors as president of the “commonwealth” party in a 1998 hearing that the new “commonwealth status” proposal sounded like “the free beer and barbeque option.”  The non-confrontational and thoughtful Bingaman was trying to gently say that the proposal was totally unrealistic.

The “commonwealth” party reaction, however, was to work with one of its closest allies in official Washington, DC, U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez, to communicate to heavily Hispanic New Mexico that Bingaman had ‘insulted’ Latinos.

Bingaman never changed his view and subsequently carefully expressed it at times — but said less.

There are numerous other examples.  In fact, political officials in the Federal government and aspirants for national office typically to try to avoid the central and most important issue of Puerto Rico or try to take a stance that does not conflict with the “commonwealth” party because of the fusses that the party, its lobbyists, and its few official allies would otherwise make.

Finding a Federal official, candidate, or aide who will speak forthrightly about the issue is relatively rare.  It is most often done when it is required — such as at last week’s hearing.

The Obama Administration is one of the other examples of trying to avoid the issue.  It has stated the positions that Wyden did.  It has also pointed out that statehood won a majority of the vote in last November’s plebiscite, which also conflicts with the commonwealthers’ claims.

But it declined to appear at the hearing.  Had it testified, it would have had to reiterate these points with Garcia in the room, further contradicting and embarrassing him on the questions.

The main purpose of throwing ‘mud’ at Wyden is to get him to back off the Puerto Rico status issue.  But a related goal is to scare other senators.

U.S. senators really have nothing to fear from speaking truthfully about the issue.  But, busy with other issues that concern their constituents and are more immediate for the Federal government, they would likely weigh whether speaking on the issue is worth the headache of having to respond to spurious personal attacks on their honesty and impartiality.

The ‘Free Association’ Wing Reason

Secondary goals of the “commonwealth” party leadership’s tirade against Wyden probably concern the party itself.  The statements of the senators at the hearing tremendously strengthened the arguments of leaders of the party who, like the senators, Obama, and other present and past Federal officials, acknowledge that Puerto Rico is a territory, the party’s new “commonwealth status” proposal is not viable, and the alternative to territory status and statehood is nationhood.

None of Puerto Rico’s leaders support territory status.  If “commonwealth” can only be a territory status and the proposed new “commonwealth status” is impossible, Puerto Rico’s option other than statehood is nationhood.

A significant number of powerful “commonwealth” party mayors and outspoken insular legislators favor nationhood in an association with the U.S.

Their association proposals are flawed, such as proposing nationhood with continued U.S. granting of citizenship, which is why Garcia and others in control of the party reject ‘free association.’

But the free association leaders represent a growing wing of the “commonwealth” party, although Garcia insultingly dismissed them after the hearing as “feathers.”

Changing the Conversation

Additionally, the attacks on Wyden are probably geared towards ‘changing the conversation’ in Puerto Rico away from party President Garcia’s weak performance at the hearing.

Relatedly, the attacks suggest strength in the party leadership in an effort to encourage party loyalists disheartened by the Governor’s presentation and defense of the party’s beliefs and ideals.

Why the Charges are Baseless

Party Secretary Suarez and his companion legislator cited $40,000 in donations that they contended were responsible for Wyden’s positions at the hearing.

To put that in context, however, according to public records, Sen. Wyden has raised over $7 million since 2009. $40,000 isn’t that much.

A little more than half of the $40,000 was generated by the efforts of the owner of one of Puerto Rico’s largest and best hospitals.  He has been a major campaigner for Medicare paying the same amount for hospital treatment of patients in the territory that it pays in the States.

He has also been an active “commonwealth” party member, although current leaders of the party have offended him.

Medicare legislation is within the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee — not the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  Wyden is now the third-ranking majority member of the Finance Committee, behind two Democrats who are retiring next year.

The rest of the donations came from a leading law firm.  A few individuals at the 800 plus attorney firm advise and represent a big business and a top university in Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rico Statehood Council.

But the firm has lawyers who work on issues in the Finance Committee as well as energy and Native American matters within the jurisdiction of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. So, Puerto Rico’s status is just one of its issues with committees on which Wyden has important influence.

Further, the U.S. Supreme Court has found Puerto Rico to be subject to the broad authority of Congress to govern territories.

As long as Puerto Rico is a territory, its people have the right to petition for statehood or nationhood.

Under the new “commonwealth status” proposal, the U.S. would be bound to Puerto Rico being able to nullify Federal laws and court jurisdiction and to enter into international agreements and organizations as if it were a nation.  The U.S. would also have to grant Puerto Rico greater economic benefits than at present and to continue to grant U.S. citizenship.

Referring to the ‘commonwealth’ party, Committee Chairman Wyden advised that, “Persistence in supporting this option … undermines resolution of Puerto Rico’s status question.”

He noted that not having a decision on eventual statehood or nationhood contributes to Puerto Rico’s economic and social problems, recalling that President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status found that “identifying the most effective means of assisting the Puerto Rican economy depends on resolving” the question.

Wyden also said that the current territory status known as “commonwealth”, “undermines the United States’ moral standing in the world” because “nearly four million U.S. citizens do not have a vote in the government that makes the national laws which affect their daily lives.”

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