Key Senators Propose Congress Review Navy Base Property Use Plans
Two key Members of the Congress on military issues this week proposed that the national legislature have an opportunity to review planned disposals of property at the soon-to-be-closed Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico before the plans are implemented.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-VA) and Member James Inhofe (R-OK) made the proposal in a joint Senate-House of Representatives conference committee named to work out differences between the bills that each house of the Congress passed to establish policy for national defense activities.
Warner co-leads the conference committee along with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA). Hunter reportedly has agreed to the proposal -- making its enactment into law a definite possibility.
The proposal would require the Navy to explain to the Congress Armed Services Committees plans to sell or give away base property 360 days before disposing of each piece of property. The sit and wait period would give the Congress time to pass legislation preventing implementation of any plans to which it objects.
The proposal would effectively amend a law enacted October 1st that allocates funds for defense activities. That law requires the large base to be closed by next April 1st and its property to be disposed of under normal base closure procedures.
Other than in the case of property to be used by other federal agencies, the procedures enable local governments to determine the future use of the property with the approval of the Navy. (Ownership of property to be used for public purposes would be transferred without cost -- which is standard for all federal government property disposals. But local governments can retain 40% of the income generated by property used for profit-making ventures -- a special benefit intended to facilitate redevelopment of former military property in ways that minimize economic harm to the area and maximize economic benefit. The federal government would receive 60% of the proceeds from sales or rentals for property used for commercial ventures. Payments must be made at fair market value.)
Inhofe is said to want to make sure that individuals do not unduly benefit from what are now public resources because of the closure of the Navys training range centered on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Navy officials have estimated the value of the Roosevelt Roads bases property at up to $1.7 billion. The range was closed May 1st in response to Puerto Rican demands. The bases primary function was to support training on the range.
The administration of Puerto Rico Governor Sila Calderon ("commonwealth" party/no national party) -- including the territorys Resident Commissioner in Washington, Anibal Acevedo Vila -- has indicated that it wants the property to be used for tourism businesses. It determined this after Acevedos likely rival for the governorship, Pedro Rossello (statehood/D), proposed that the property be used for a needed major port for the territory.
Because Calderon and Acevedo helped lead (unsuccessful) efforts to try to force the ranges closure before the Navy could replace it May 1st, the prospect of them determining uses that could benefit a large number of entrepreneurs has raised some concerns in Washington.
Inhofe and others have been concerned all along that designs on Navy land by "speculators" were among the motivations for the efforts of main island of Puerto Rico politicians such as Calderon and Acevedo to try to force the ranges closure. This is the reason that Inhofe successfully convinced the Congress to initially transfer ownership of all of the range to the U.S. Department of the Interior rather than have the federal government dispose of most of the land as agreed to by Rossello, President Clinton, and military authorities. Calderons violations of a federal-territorial agreement regarding the range then killed further federal legislation to dispose of this land.
Inhofe and Warner also like the idea of a commercial port being developed on the site of the Roosevelt Roads base because this would maintain docking facilities that could be used by Navy ships as well as commercial vessels.
The Inhofe/Warner amendment was the latest in a series of legislative developments this year regarding the base that caught Acevedo by surprise. He earlier was surprised when:
- The Senate Armed Services Committee votes to cut funding for operating the base by 50%;
- House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) at the request of the Navy proposed legislation to close the base and dispose of the property; and
- Subcommittee top ranking Democrat John Murtha (D-PA) co-sponsored the Lewis legislation.
The Navy initially planned the 50% cut in base expenditures because of the closure of the Vieques range. It later asked Lewis to require the quick closure of the Roosevelt Roads base so that the funding involved could be used to meet military needs.
In the case of this surprise, Acevedo dashed off a letter to President Bush that seemed more designed for Puerto Rican consumption than to enlist Bush in opposing the amendment. The letter to Republican Bush criticized the Senate Republican majority as a whole. It also was inaccurate and hyperbolic.
The letter asserted that the Inhofe-Warner amendment would "undermine a difficult compromise" on the issue incorporated into the October 1st law "in a manner that is out of the scope of the legislative process." The Congress, however, has the authority to pass -- and routinely passes -- legislation directly and indirectly amending laws enacted earlier.
Moreover, it was actually the October 1st law that contradicted congressional rules. This is because the rules prohibit making policy -- such as prescribing procedures for disposing of federal property -- through legislation to allocate funds, known as appropriations bills. Policy-making is supposed to be done through authorization bills.
However, just as the Congress can amend existing laws, it can override its rules and this is routinely done. The normal procedure for legislating -- or making policy -- on an appropriations bill, however, involves the agreement of the leaders of the relevant authorizing committee. In the case of the Roosevelt Roads provision incorporated into the national defense appropriations bill, the agreement of the leaders of the Armed Services Committees was not obtained. A prudent Member of Congress who does not want to have policy made through an appropriations bill undone obtains the agreement to it of the authorizing committee leaders in advance of consideration of the appropriations bill. Acevedo failed to secure -- or, even, seek -- Armed Services Committees approval.
Another assertion of Acevedos was that the Navy opposes the Inhofe-Warner amendment. While this has not been publicly confirmed, agencies generally oppose legislation that would limit their authority -- such as requiring that they report to the Congress on their plans and wait before implementing the plans. Additionally, however, an informed source said that Bush aides blessed the amendment before Inhofe and Warner formally proposed it.
Acevedo also suggested the amendment would greatly delay redevelopment of the property. But Lewis has previously said that the normal base closure and property disposal procedures will take years. He had advocated an expedited process for disposing of the Roosevelt Roads property land to address Acevedos concern about the economic impact of the bases closure on the area near the base but Acevedo quietly worked with senators to substitute the normal disposal procedures. During the existence of the Vieques range, the base generated as much as hundreds of millions of dollars a year in economic activity in Puerto Rico, mostly in the area near the Roosevelt Roads base. Lewis was reported to be "furious" that Acevedo undermined his effort to expedite redevelopment of the area.
Acevedos real concern may not be that the amendment would delay actual redevelopment of the property. Instead, he is probably concerned that it would enable the next administration in Puerto Rico to determine the proposed use of most of the bases property rather than the Calderon Administration. Since Rossello has a significant lead over Acevedo in polls for next years gubernatorial election, this threatens the Calderon and Acevedos plans to secure use of the property for tourism businesses and increases the possibility that it will be used for a port as Rossello has advocated.
In a public statement, Acevedo also accused Inhofe of trying to "torpedo" the future creation of jobs through the property. However, the Inhofe-Warner amendment would not overturn any plans for the propertys use and a law that Inhofe and Warner have not proposed would be required to overturn the plans.
By weeks end, Acevedo had convinced the two top Democrats on the conference committee, Senator Carl Levin (MI) and Representative Ike Skelton (MO), to oppose the Inhofe-Warner amendment. He also enlisted the opposition of two other Democratic senators, Edward ("Ted") Kennedy (MA) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY).
Inhofe and Warner still have the edge on the issue, however, if they have the support of House Committee Chairman Hunter and the Bush Administration does not work to defeat the amendment.
Further, Inhofe and Warner would probably win the war to have any property disposal plans submitted to the Armed Services Committees before the plans are implemented even if they lose the battle over the amendment. A law is not needed to force the Navy to submit the plans to the Armed Services Committees. The Navy would probably submit the plans if Warner, as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, simply requests to be consulted on the plans. Warner -- and Inhofe -- have too much say over laws governing the Navy for the Navy to offend them by not consulting with them on a matter that is of little importance to the Navy: the future use of property that the Navy is giving up.
Why Sen. Kennedy and Minority House Members Endorsed Acevedo
Acevedo picked up endorsements of his gubernatorial candidacy from Sen. Kennedy and 22 Members of the House Democratic Hispanic, Black, and Asian Caucuses during the past week. The House Members made the endorsements while in Puerto Rico for a retreat of the three groups of Democrats who are members of ethnic and racial minorities in the U.S. population.
Kennedy is believed to have endorsed Acevedo at the request of paid individuals who have worked on the political aspirations of both men and because of private allegations that Rossello was involved with kickbacks that an education secretary took during Rossellos previous terms as governor. Kennedy has been a key figure in obtaining increased federal aid for schools in the territory.
Ironically, Kennedy formerly called Rossello "the best" governor Puerto Rico has had since Luis Munoz Marin, the territorys first elected governor. Munoz supported the presidential aspirations of Kennedys late brother, President John Kennedy.
Among those reportedly making the Rossello corruption allegations to Kennedy was Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Annabelle Rodriguez, a Calderon appointee and strong "commonwealther" as well as a top law enforcement authority. However, neither Rodriguezs Justice Department nor any other law enforcement authority has linked Rossello to the kickbacks or any other corrupt activity committed by members of the statehood party while he was governor. In addition, there have been a number of cases of corruption involving Calderon Administration personnel -- including a cabinet member -- and "commonwealth" party officials.
Kennedy knows Rodriguez from supporting her two ill-fated nominations to be a federal judge in Puerto Rico. While Rossello did not oppose her first nomination to the bench, he undermined her second nomination.
According to an informed source, Rodriguez met directly with Kennedy to make the allegations.
Kennedy may also have heard from supporters of the aspirations of both men. One is former Senator John Culver of Iowa, a Calderon Administration lobbyist who has reportedly suggested possible Rossello corruption. Another is top campaign consultant Joe Napolitan. Both were recruited and paid for "commonwealth" political efforts by former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon and have remained involved with "commonwealth" efforts.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez (NJ) is said to have been the main driving force behind the endorsements by members of the Democratic minority caucuses. Menendez has been a major help to Acevedo in the Congress although Acevedo has only minimal accomplishments.
The two became close through Rep. Luis Gutierrez (IL), an ethnic Puerto Rican who proclaims his support of independence for Puerto Rico but has been the main proponent of pro-"commonwealth" measures in the Congress for years. Gutierrez has been Acevedos mentor in the Congress and reportedly also worked to secure the endorsements for Acevedo.
Gutierrez is a longtime Menendez ally. He does not carry much weight in the Congress himself, but Menendez is very influential. Gutierrez recruited Menendez for efforts led by Acevedo, as president of the territorys "commonwealth" party, to block legislation to enable Puerto Ricans to determine the territorys ultimate political status (a status that would enable Puerto Ricans to have full voting representation in the U.S. government or to elect their own national government). Menendez, like Gutierrez, has also been the recipient of substantial campaign contributions from "commonwealth" supporters in Puerto Rico.
Powell Reiterates Puerto Rico Should Not Try to Act as a Nation Abroad
In a broadcast interview reported this week, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated that Puerto Ricos insular government should not act as if it were a sovereign national government in contacts with foreign nations.
Powell verbally restated a point that he and other Department of State authorities have repeatedly made during the Calderon Administration: The U.S. Government represents Puerto Ricans internationally along with all other U.S. citizens.
He made the point in being asked whether Puerto Rico could participate in an upcoming regional meeting of heads of state and government of sovereign nations. He has previously advised U.S. embassies abroad in writing that the Calderon Administration has stealthily and repeatedly sought to be recognized as if it were the representative of a sovereign nation in attending international meetings and in negotiating international agreements. With respect to the upcoming meeting, Powell has previously written that it is unlikely that the State Department would approve significant participation by the insular government.
Calderon, her Secretary of State -- Ferdinand Mercado, and Acevedo have repeatedly denied Powells allegations. Calderon and Mercado also continued to deny that they had been advised not to engage in such deceptive activities by U.S. State Department personnel until well after Powells written directives revealed that they had been so warned in writing twice and that they had declined to meet with senior U.S. State Department officials on the issue.
When Powells internal memoranda on the issue were leaked to the news media in a federal effort to embarrass Calderon and Mercado into discontinuing their efforts to seek sovereign nation treatment, Mercado had also claimed that the memos were the work of low-level officials who wanted to limit Puerto Ricos non-existent "commonwealth" powers and did not represent true federal positions. Powells verbal statements -- as well as earlier statements by his press aides have proven Mercados claims to be wrong.
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