Why the U.S. Senate Has Not Celebrated the Anniversary of Puerto Rico’s Constitution

August 2, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. .. Why the U.S. Senate Has Not Celebrated the Anniversary of Puerto Rico’s Constitution

Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila ("commonwealth" party/D) told reporters a few days before the 50th anniversary of the constitution of Puerto Rico’s local government that his congressional resolution celebrating the anniversary had passed the U.S. House of Representatives too late to obtain Senate approval by the anniversary on July 25th. But key Senate aides say approval was planned to occur days before July 25th and the fact is that the approval still could have occurred and was derailed.

A number of developments factored into a Senate leadership decision not to approve the resolution. Most of the developments were statements by a few key players in Puerto Rico’s political status debate and federal actions on the issue. Among the most important were five statements made by Acevedo and Governor Sila Calderon ("commonwealth" party/no national party).

Three of these statements were made in the context of the House’s approval of the resolution. Perhaps the most damaging was a statement by Calderon, reported in the San Juan Star, that the House approval demonstrated that the Congress supported Puerto Rico’s current political status. This status is that of an unincorporated territorial possession of the United States that the Congress can govern in local as well as national matters and to which all provisions of the U.S. Constitution do not apply.

But what Calderon meant -- and everyone in Puerto Rico understood -- was that Puerto Rico is a "commonwealth," a non-existent status that some in her political party suggests actually exists. Under this claimed status, Puerto Rico is no longer a U.S. territory but a sovereign entity freely associated with the U.S., and it is not subject to federal legislating on local government matters.

The word "commonwealth" is taken from the name that Puerto Rico’s local constitution gives the local government, the "Commonwealth," much as constitutional conventions in the States of Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky named their state governments and the constitutional convention in the territory of the Northern Mariana Islands named its local government.

Calderon’s claim, and a similar one by Acevedo on a radio station in Puerto Rico that got less attention in the Congress, created serious problems for the resolution. One related to the fact that the resolution had been written by the chairman and ranking minority party member of the House committee that considered the resolution specifically to eliminate any suggestion of support for either Puerto Rico’s current territorial status or the "commonwealth" party’s status claims. Acevedo had included language suggesting his party’s status claims in the draft of the resolution that he gave Resources Committee Chairman James Hansen (R-UT) and Ranking Minority Member Nick Joe Rahall (D-WV). Contradicting what the two Members of the House responsible for the resolution’s passage said the resolution meant cast serious doubts on the advisability of further approval since none of the Members of the House or Senate involved wanted to support the "commonwealth" party’s status claims, which have been consistently rejected by the federal government.

Involved Members of Congress also did not want to support Puerto Rico’s current status for two reasons. One is that Puerto Rico’s statehood and independence parties oppose it, and very few Puerto Ricans support it. The other is that the current status is not fully democratic in that it does not enable Puerto Ricans to vote for their national government officials.

Finally, the claim that the resolution supported Puerto Rico’s current status validated concerns about the resolution that had been expressed by some pro-statehood and independence activists in Puerto Rico. Involved Members of Congress had earlier thought that the activists were overly concerned.

Calderon made the other statement that was made in the context of House consideration of the resolution that undercut the measure. She said that Representative Jose Serrano (D-NY), who was born in Puerto Rico, reflected the views of "a small minority" in the House when he said he could not support a resolution that "celebrated colonialism" and called for a status choice among the fully democratic options of statehood, independence, and nationhood in association with the U.S. Serrano’s statements led to a mini-House debate and recorded vote on the resolution. Hansen, Rahall, and Acevedo expected it to be approved without debate and by an unrecorded voice vote.

The criticism caused some in the Senate to back away from the resolution. Serrano is an important and popular Member of the House.

It also probably motivated Serrano to explain to senators, as he had to House Members, why he strongly opposed the resolution. His conversations with several Democratic senators -- including leaders of the Senate -- helped put the brakes on the resolution.

Acevedo also made two other statements that caused a problem for the resolution, including a statement to Democratic senators that Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) supported the resolution. Daschle did not support the measure, but might well have if Acevedo had not made the claim. Members of Congress are often offended when their positions are misrepresented or presumed by others. In addition, Democratic senators backed away from the resolution when they heard that Acevedo had misrepresented Daschle’s position.

Another Acevedo misrepresentation also caused a problem for the resolution. This one was that the chairman of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over territorial matters supported Calderon’s proposal for a commission to recommend whether Puerto Rico should determine its status preference through a referendum or a convention. Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) sent Calderon a letter at her request and Acevedo’s recognizing the anniversary and reacting to her commission plan. But knowing that the statehood party objected to the commission, Bingaman carefully wrote that he thought Members of Congress would consider a status process proposal made with the support of all three of Puerto Rico’s parties.

Bingaman’s advocacy of the resolution was key to its success in the Senate. Ultimately, it was his decision, as Energy Committee Chairman, as to whether the resolution should be considered.

The resolution was also handicapped by its initial referral, when it reached the Senate from the House, to the Judiciary Committee. That committee generally considers commemorative resolutions.

Almost immediately after the resolution came to the committee, Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked the committee’s members if they had any objection to the resolution being acted on by the full Senate. But questions about the resolution, due to the debate in the House, and calls to members by Puerto Rico Senate statehood party leader and Democratic National Committeeman Kenneth McClintock, held up committee agreement to have the bill formally considered directly by the full Senate without a committee vote.

The calls and issues also led the Senate Democratic leadership to take the unusual step of having the bill sent from the Judiciary Committee to the Energy Committee, which has the jurisdiction and expertise on the issues.

Bingaman then heard from McClintock and other statehooders, Serrano, and Manuel Rodriguez Orellana of the Puerto Rican Independence Party.

Meanwhile, two other developments occurred. One was that the Washington Post published an almost half page article on page three that made clear that advocates of statehood and independence would not celebrate the anniversary and that, even though Calderon’s "commonwealth" party would, the party wanted to substantially change the governing arrangement that the constitution was an integral part of.

The other development was that Puerto Rico Senator Miriam Ramirez de Ferrer, a statehooder and Republican, cornered Republican senators. She reportedly enlisted three to "put a hold" on the resolution if the Democrats proposed approval. This maneuver would require a full Senate debate on the resolution and 60 votes to pass it. Ramirez so convinced one of the senators to try to prevent the resolution’s approval that he called her five times to report progress in their effort.

Senators were relieved that they had not gone along with the resolution as articles on the anniversary appeared in newspapers across the nation. Many stories made the lack of support in the islands for Puerto Rico’s current status clear. A number also made clear that most of the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans in the States do not support the current governing arrangement.

The "Washington Update" appears bi-weekly.

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