The Puerto Rico Status Act is a proposal built on ideas contained in two competing bills on Puerto Rico’s political status. Members of Congress spent months working to come up with a bill that both sides — statehood and independence supporters — could support. If the bill becomes law, it will offer statehood or sovereignty to Puerto Rico voters and accept their decision.
If the bill does not pass, Puerto Rico will continue to be an unincorporated territory belonging to the United States. Its ultimate political status will still be undecided.
El Nuevo Día reported that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-NY) and Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL) both expressed confidence that the House will have the opportunity to vote on the bill this summer.
How does a bill become law?
Bills can be introduced at any time. They must pass in the House and in the Senate and then must be signed by the President of the United States before they become laws. Since 2017, just about 4% of the bills that have been proposed have actually become laws.
The Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico, the only representative the territory has in Congress, cannot vote on laws in any meaningful way. While she can cast a vote in committee consideration of a bill, she cannot vote on final passage of legislation.
Committee consideration: the first step
After a bill is introduced, it goes to the committee which is most responsible for the topic under consideration. In the House of Representatives, when it comes to Puerto Rico Status, this is the Natural Resources Committee. The committee given this responsibility conducts markup on the bill, changing it as much as they consider necessary, and sends it to the floor of the House for a vote.
Sometimes a committee does not send the bill to the House floor for a vote. When this happens, the bill has died in committee.
Natural Resources has been holding hearings in Puerto Rico and soliciting public comment on the Act. Members of the Committee have already said they want to make some changes.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), a member of the Natural Resources Committee, said, “There should be no rush,” according to El Nuevo Dia. Her proposed legislation, HR 2070, has been criticized by some experts as a means of delaying statehood legislation in response to the statehood win in the 2020 referendum.
She is one of the members who want to see changes in the bill, although she was also one of the leaders involved in preparing the compromise bill.
Rep. Bruch Westerman (R-AR), the ranking Republican member on the committee, has also said that he has “many problems” with the bill and that he was not consulted on the text.
Sometimes bills need to be referred to more than one committee. With respect to the Puerto Rico Status Act, the provisions involving the retention of U.S. citizenship in a sovereign nation of Puerto Rico might compel consideration by the House Judiciary Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The committee – or committees – will have to come to some agreement on the bill before they can send it to the full House of Representatives.
Will Congress vote for the bill?
There are some serious questions about the provisions of the bill, some of which may not be possible under the U.S. Constitution. The claims about U.S. citizenship, in particular, have drawn scrutiny. Proponents of lifetime citizenship for individuals in a new nation of Puerto Rico have indicated that the current language is too weak to offer adequate protection. However, the House can make changes, called amendments, to the bill during its discussion of the act once it comes out of committee.
The Senate does not yet have a version of the bill under consideration.
If both the Senate and the House pass versions of the bill, any differences between the two versions must be harmonized before it can go to the president for a signature.