The Puerto Rico Status Debate: Why Congress? Why Now?

One hundred years ago, Puerto Rico became a part of the United States in settlement of the Spanish-American War. Nineteen years later, the United States granted U.S. citizenship to the Island's inhabitants. Using its authority under the "territorial" clause of the U.S. Constitution, Congress over time has extended a measure of local self-rule to the American citizens of Puerto Rico. The current structure of local government, commonly known as "Commonwealth" was enacted in 1952.

A bill (H.R. 856) sponsored by House Resources Committee Chairman Don Young (R-AK) recently passed the House under which the voters of Puerto Rico would be asked to choose whether to continue the current status, or to begin a process that could lead either to statehood for Puerto Rico or independence. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate by Senator Larry Craig (R-ID). On April 2, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will begin its consideration of this issue.


* Because Puerto Rico is a territory, it cannot address status issues on its own. In fact, all issues relating to the territories' governance are vested directly with the Congress, as prescribed under the Territorial Clause. Congress, and only Congress, can ultimately make decisions regarding the political status of territories.

* Puerto Rico is currently undergoing a constitutional crisis. The results of a 1993 local referenda in Puerto Rico suggest that a majority of the U.S. citizens on the Island do not support the current status, a result that should be of serious concern nationally. It is an American principle that government must have the consent of the people; when that consent is lost, a new consensus must be found.

* The U.S. Senate has agreed that meaningful self-determination for Puerto Rico can only be achieved with Congressional intervention. Following the approval of a 1979 Senate resolution reaffirming Puerto Rico's right to self-determination, the then chairman of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee stated that "an exercise of self-determination by Puerto Rico, in order to be meaningful, must have the status options precisely defined by Congress." In 1990, the Energy Committee called this the "guiding principle" in the approach taken in consideration of the Island's political status.

* The American citizens of Puerto Rico have requested Congressional action. Traditionally in the United States, territories petition Congress to begin a process of considering the status issue. That is what has taken place here. In the last ten years, the people of Puerto Rico have requested Congressional action on a resolution to the political status of the Island on numerous occasions. In 1988, the leaders from the three political parties of Puerto Rico formally requested the President and the Congress to sanction a referendum on the preference for future political status. The state Legislature of Puerto Rico asked Congress in 1993, and again in 1997, to work with the people of Puerto Rico on a final resolution to the status problem. The 1997 Joint Resolution of the legislature specifically called upon Congress to "respond to the democratic aspirations of the American citizens of Puerto Rico," as it did in the case of other U.S. territories, including the thirty-seven territories that became states after the original thirteen colonies formed the original Union.


* H.R. 856 and S. 472 are process bills, not statehood bills. Legislation currently under review by the Senate merely asks the voters of Puerto Rico to select their preference among three status options, Commonwealth, as properly defined under Federal law; a process that could lead to statehood; and a process that would lead to independence. Were a majority to select the statehood process, a lengthy period of negotiations -- up to ten years -- regarding the terms and conditions of possible statehood would ensue. During that period, both Puerto Rico and Congress would have the option to stop the process altogether. If at the end of the ten year "transition" period Puerto Rico's voters wanted to move forward, a separate Act of Admission would have to be introduced, debated, and enacted into law by Congress before Puerto Rico became a state. Congress, and only Congress, in separate enabling legislation, can admit a state.


* The current "Commonwealth" system was designed to support economic subsidies to Puerto Rico which have grown to be extremely expensive. A recent study by two prominent Harvard economists found the cost of Commonwealth to be in excess of $10 billion a year. As a Commonwealth, Puerto Rico lacks the tools and flexibility to compete economically in a level-playing field with the States and foreign countries, thus perpetuating economic dependence on the U.S. Treasury. Under these circumstances, the cost of Commonwealth can only increase.

* The same study concluded that if the voters of Puerto Rico, and ultimately Congress, chose statehood, the American taxpayer would see a net reduction in Federal spending in Puerto Rico of between $2.1 and $2.7 billion, with greater savings in the future as the Puerto Rican economy fully realizes its potential as a state. Thus, a change in status potentially could save the taxpayer billions, while continuation of the current status will only result in increasing subsidies over time.

* Similarly, the General Accounting Office in 1995, using static analysis, concluded that the Treasury would see a net benefit of $50 million as a result of bringing Puerto Rican American into the Federal income tax system (they currently pay into social security and the unemployment system). As incomes on the Island were to increase as a result of a better economy, Treasury tax revenues would as well.


* Puerto Rico has a longstanding commitment to English proficiency, having been the first jurisdiction in the United States to recognize English as an official language (in 1902). The current government in Puerto Rico has launched an aggressive English language instruction program to ensure that the public school system produces English speaking citizens.

* English is the language of business and commerce in Puerto Rico currently, and virtually all of the Island's professional qualification examinations are in English. The presence of so many American companies on the Island has resulted in most job opportunities being in English.

* English is the official language of the Federal government and the Federal courts in Puerto Rico. Proficiency in English is a requirement for federal jury service in Puerto Rico.


* The legislation currently under review by the U.S. Senate would in no way alter the nature of citizenship of the American citizens residing in Puerto Rico. Legislation approved by the House of Representatives on March 4th clearly states that "persons born in Puerto Rico have United States nationality and citizenship as prescribed by Congress." H.R. 856, as approved by the House, does nothing to affect these rights.

* Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship in 1917 through an act of Congress, making it a statutory type of citizenship. Thus, the citizenship of Americans living in Puerto Rico is, by its own nature, different from that of the rest of the Nation, which enjoys citizenship fully protected by the U.S. Constitution.


* The admission of Puerto Rico as a new state, should that ultimately be the decision of the voters in Puerto Rico and the Congress, need not have a negative impact on the representation in Congress of other states. As new states were admitted during the nineteenth century, the size of the House (now 435) was periodically increased. Early this century, by an act of Congress, the size of the House was set at 435, but subject potentially to being increased again by Congress.

* When Alaska and Hawaii were admitted in the late 1950's, the size of the House increased temporarily to 437, but was later adjusted back to 435 after the 1960 decennial census. Congress could have left the size of the House at 437, but chose not to, given the fact that the addition of two new House members resulted in minimal impact on other delegations.

* Congress has within its power the ability to prevent the admission of a new state from having any effect on other states. Moreover, given the lengthy time frame for Puerto Rico to decide whether to become a state, and Congress ultimately to act on that request, an adjustment to the House most likely will not occur until after the 2020 census.


* Recent polls indicate that Hispanics in America are looking to Congress to implement legislation that empowers, rather than excludes, them. The issue of self-determination for Puerto Rico is extremely popular among Hispanics because it is symbolic and suggestive of how seriously Congress takes their concerns on a range of issues. It is no wonder then that in a recent poll conducted by The Tarrance Group, a total of 80% of Hispanics indicated they favor allowing Puerto Ricans to express themselves through a referendum on their preferred relationship with the United States. After all, self-determination is the ultimate empowerment tool.

* Hispanic support in the Mainland is reflected by the endorsement of legislation approved by the House of Representatives from key national Hispanic organizations such as the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; the American G.I. Forum; the Republican National Hispanic Assembly; the Hispanic National Policy Forum; the League of United Latin American Citizens (L.U.L.A.C.); and the National Association of Hispanic Publications.

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