Status Choice Activist Heads Sen. Territories Panel… Acevedo Reiterates Impossible Status Plan, Says PDP Won’t Seek It Until After ’04, Calls For Less Fed. Aid, Acknowledges Lack Of Democracy… Statehooders Give Status Petitions To GOP Sen. Leader

March 7, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. .. Status Choice Activist Chairs New Senate Territories Panel

The U.S. Senate’s lead committee on territorial affairs, Energy and Natural Resources has reassigned lead responsibility for territorial matters from the full Committee to its Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests.

The Subcommittee is chaired by Larry Craig (R-ID), who is a strong advocate of Puerto Ricans choosing the territory’s status and the territory obtaining a fully democratic governing arrangement.

Craig was one of the two primary sponsors of a 1998 bill that would have enabled Puerto Ricans to determine whether the territory would become a State or a nation. He has also been a strong critic of unrealistic "commonwealth" proposals that would grant the territory some national government powers without granting nationhood.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is the Subcommittee’s Ranking Democrat, but a Committee source says that Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) will actually lead Democratic efforts on territories issues. Akaka is also a strong supporter of a Puerto Rican status choice.

Acevedo Reiterates Impossible Status Plan, Says Party Will Not Seek It Until After 2004, Calls for Less Federal Aid for Puerto Ricans, Recognizes Current Status is Undemocratic

Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner in Washington, Anibal Acevedo Vila ("commonwealth" party/D) delivered a major address on the Commonwealth’s fundamental issue, the territory’s political status, here this week.

The speech by Governor Sila’s Calderon’s ("commonwealth"/no national party) official representative in the Congress was given to a George Washington University audience. It reiterated previous statements by Calderon and Acevedo on the status that they want for Puerto Rico and the territory’s current status. It also, however, staked out important new ground on –

  • the handling of the issue,
  • federal aid for Puerto Ricans, and
  • the undemocratic nature of the territory’s current status.

Handling of the Issue

A new position on the handling of the issue was that a "commonwealth" party government would seek federal action on the issue without the agreement or participation of Puerto Rico’s other political parties if necessary. Puerto Rico’s political parties are based on different visions of the territory’s current and future status. One of the other two parties advocates statehood and the other advocates independence.

The statement was surprising because Calderon and Acevedo have said that a consensus among the parties -- at least on the process for handling the issue -- is essential for obtaining federal action on it. Indeed, Acevedo -- in one of several contradictions in his address -- also said that a consensus is essential.

Federal officials responsible for the issue, however, say that while they would like a consensus and it would facilitate action, they would also act in response to a petition for a realistic status supported by a majority vote in Puerto Rico even if there is no consensus. Further, aides to Members of Congress cited by Calderon and Acevedo as requiring a consensus say that their bosses have not imposed the requirement.

Another new position on the handling of the issue, however, was that, although the Calderon Administration would seek federal action unilaterally, it would not do so until sometime after 2004. Calderon and Acevedo would have to be re-elected in 2004 to fulfill this pledge.

The statehood and independence parties want federal action, but neither likes Calderon’s plan for obtaining it. The plan calls for a commission to develop a procedure for resolving the issue. The commission would be made up of nine members, one from each political party and the rest appointed by Calderon. One of the additional six would be Acevedo, three would be citizens, and two would be "jurists."

Although Calderon has pledged to consult with the other parties on the five seats for citizens and "jurists," leaders of the statehood party in particular are concerned that she would name statehooders or others that they do not want. In such a case, they might seem unreasonable to the public and offend the party members or community leaders.

Leaders of both parties want a commission on procedure to be comprised of equal representation from the three parties. Such a committee was established by the last Commonwealth party governor, Rafael Hernandez Colon (D).

Statehood party leaders also object to a further purpose of the commission: developing a process to seek federal approval of her vision for the territory’s future status. This plan would have Puerto Rico recognized as a nation but in a permanent union with the United States. The U.S. would also continue to grant citizenship and all aid now granted Puerto Ricans. The Commonwealth would determine the application of federal laws and enter into agreements with foreign nations.

Acevedo laid out a similar -- but not identical -- vision in his speech this week. All relevant federal offices have said that such a governing arrangement is impossible and objectionable.

Statehood party leaders also point out that the federal government, which would have to act to change Puerto Rico’s status, has established a different process for handling the issue. Under it, a presidential task force would work with representatives of Puerto Rico’s people to clarify the territory’s actual status options and the process for obtaining one. This would avoid the territory seeking an unrealistic governing arrangement.

President Bush has appointed members of the task force, but White House officials say that the Calderon Administration has not asked for federal action and lobbied against it. Calderon has made it clear that she does not want federal views on the issue before she gets a Puerto Rican status petition that she wants.

Less Federal Aid

Perhaps the most surprising statement Acevedo made was that Puerto Ricans ought to receive less federal assistance. He called for the Commonwealth to develop new "tools" to reduce "dependency" on federal funds.

Acevedo did not explain what the tools would be or what federal programs he would cut. Presumably the Commonwealth’s "tools" would increase its local revenues such as taxes. Dependency is generally understood to refer to aid for low income individuals.

The call for federal funding cuts goes beyond Calderon’s status proposal and campaign statements. In both, she called for capping aid to needy individuals at current levels. As a candidate, she criticized then Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo (statehood/D) for seeking -- and obtaining -- a substantial increase in funding for medical care for low income individuals in Puerto Rico.

In office, however, both Acevedo and Calderon have sought additional federal funding, including in programs for the needy.

In arguing for less federal funding and more local revenue, Acevedo said that "This is the only way to be truly autonomous, and to achieve true interdependency, instead of just dependency."

Current Status is Undemocratic

Acevedo also made his strongest criticism to date of the undemocratic nature of Puerto Rico’s current governing arrangement. Under this arrangement, Puerto Ricans elect territorial government officials but they do not vote for their national government decision-makers.

The arrangement limits Puerto Rican representation in the federal government to a sole resident commissioner. The resident commissioner is seated in the U.S. House of Representatives, can speak there, and can vote in committees of the House, but he (or she) cannot vote in the full House where bills are finalized.

Acevedo said that "This is a problem of democratic asymmetry in as much as many federal laws apply to Puerto Rico without a formal mechanism of participation by the people. "

Other Proposals

Acevedo also reiterated Calderon’s two pre-eminent goals for what he termed an "Enhanced Commonwealth." One is that "Federal laws that are not essential to the commonwealth compact should be applicable only if the people of Puerto Rico agree." He suggested that U.S. security laws may be essential but economic laws may not be.

Federal officials have repeatedly rejected the idea of the Commonwealth determining the application of federal laws. Any such authority could not be constitutionally guaranteed in any case.

It is also difficult to conceive how federal-territorial relations could function with potentially extensive distinctions between the application of federal laws in Puerto Rico and the application of the laws everywhere else and with Puerto Rico having the ability to unilaterally change the laws at will.

The other goal Acevedo stated was for the Commonwealth to have greater international power than the States. Federal officials have also repeatedly rejected this idea.

In arguing for the proposals, Acevedo said that "The idea of enhanced Commonwealth may challenge your assumptions and understandings of traditional concepts of sovereignty, citizenship, and federalism." He did not note that the idea also challenges the federal government’s repeated rejections of the proposals, understanding of constitutional requirements, and understanding of a workable governing arrangement.

Acevedo also tried to limit Puerto Rico’s status options. To an extent, he recognized that statehood and independence are options. He also, however, argued extensively that the two statuses are not options.

He, further, excluded the option of nationhood in a free association with the U.S. Although an increasing number of members of Calderon’s party support free association, Calderon is opposed, believing that it would cost political support.

Acevedo, additionally, reiterated "commonwealth" party myths about the territory’s status, such as that the Commonwealth is already exempt from some areas of federal authority. He incorrectly suggested that taxation was such an area.

Acevedo also misrepresented efforts by statehooders to enable Puerto Ricans to choose the territory’s future status and the support of Puerto Ricans for unrealistic "commonwealth" proposals.

Statehooders Give Status Choice Petitions To Senate GOP Leader

Two statehood party figures, Senator Miriam Ramirez de Ferrer (R) and former Senate President Charlie Rodriguez (D), headed a group of statehood activists who Thursday gave a U.S. Senate leader some 60,000 petitions from Puerto Ricans for federal action to enable Puerto Rico’s status issue to be resolved.

The senator was Rick Santorum (PA), Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. Santorum promised to discuss the issue with other senators.

A conservative, Santorum’s previous major involvement with Puerto Rico issues was to advocate that Medicare use the same rates that it uses elsewhere in the nation to pay for hospital services in Puerto Rico.

The presentation occurred the day after Ramirez and other statehooders held a reception for U.S. Senate staff members. Among those present were aides to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT).

Frist replaced Trent Lott (MS) as Senate Republican leader. Lott has been one of the Senate’s few major opponents of statehood as an option for Puerto Rico. He assumed the position working with Calderon and Acevedo Vila.

Lott also blocked an increase in Medicare hospital payments for Puerto Rico that was supported by Santorum. Frist has also supported a Medicare hospital payments increase for Puerto Rico.

Hatch has been a supporter of a Puerto Rican status choice as well as other measures to benefit the territory.

Also present at the reception were aides to Democratic senators, including Edward Kennedy (MA).

Rodriguez also met with President Bush’s point man on Puerto Rico issues, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Ruben Barrales. Barrales heads the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status.

Rodriguez said that Barrales reiterated the importance of resolving the territory’s status issue.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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