The Young Bill Lives On In D.C.

by John Marino

January 30, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Vestiges of the Young Bill, that failed Congressional effort to push Puerto Rico into a final status solution, live on in Washington, if U.S. politicians talking about commonwealth are any indication.

U.S. Democrats and Republicans paying attention to Puerto Rico’s political status are largely of the opinion that the current relationship needs to be rearranged.

There is talk of two paths, towards sovereignty or statehood, and the term "commonwealth" is being replaced by "free association."

The pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party is complaining that that kind of talk excludes the will of the majority in Puerto Rico that it represents. But those doing the talking say they are looking at "constitutionally viable" alternatives.

Democratic front-runner John Kerry is expected to release a policy statement on Puerto Rico next month that will likely mirror that which presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark has already released, The San Juan STAR reported Thursday.

The Clark view is that statehood, independence and free association rather than commonwealth are the only viable options. He’s vowed to bring parity to Puerto Rico in federal spending programs and to resolve the status issue within his four-year term if elected.

In describing the Kerry plan, a spokesman said it would seek "constitutionally viable, non-territorial options."

The other Democratic presidential candidates with a chance of election, South Carolina Sen. John Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, have been so far silent on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Bush White House cranked up the Presidential Task Force on Status this week when its first meeting got underway. While officials say they are open to all options, including the current arrangement, some administration sources, speaking off the record, have told local journalists that they see the group heading towards a sovereignty or statehood choice for Puerto Rico.

In a letter to Bush last month, Gov. Calderón said most in Puerto Rico thought the task force responded mainly to the interests of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party. "I reiterate my conviction that any official effort to advance the status debate must include the [commonwealth government] and Puerto Ricans who can represent every political perspective," the letter continued.

Both PDP gubernatorial candidate Aníbal Acevedo Vilá and resident commissioner candidate Roberto Prats have called the Clark initiatives an attempt to revive the Young Bill. And they criticized the attempt to cut out commonwealth as a status option choice in trying to forge a status solution.

But the PDP’s support of a commonwealth, defined as a bilateral pact rather than a territorial arrangement, is increasingly becoming a hard sell in official Washington, which increasingly sees the PDP’s version of commonwealth as unconstitutional and more fantasy than reality.

The PDP will likely have an uphill battle in D.C. if it ever follows through on pledges to seek improvements to the current status. That’s even more so given the gaffs the party has committed in its forays into national politics.

Unbelievably, most of its top leaders have endorsed Dean for president, having made the choice when his candidacy still looked strong, before his big defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire. And Acevedo Vilá reportedly has strained relations with Democratic front-runner Kerry, over the former’s rejection of the Calderón administration’s Section 956 economic development plan.

But that’s just politics, where enemies become allies and vice versa on a nearly daily basis. What the PDP really has to face in D.C. is that the Young Bill has made its mark, despite its failure to be passed into law.

The legislation, which would have bound the federal government to abide by the results of a status vote on the island, was a pioneering Congressional effort to define "constitutionally viable" status options for the island.

Commonwealth was defined as basically a colonial arrangement under the power of Congress. The legislation also spelled out statehood and independence choices and a new option of free association, which looked and smelled more like independence than the bilateral pact the PDP talks about.

Named after U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the legislation, despite bitter PDP opposition, passed the House by a single vote but failed to be taken up by the Senate in 1998.

From today’s vantage point, however, it’s clear that the effort, months of hearings in San Juan and Washington, helped define the debate on the island status issue. Subsequently, the Clinton White House issued a report that jibed with the Young Bill conclusions that commonwealth, as defined by the PDP, is not constitutionally viable. And most observers fully expect the White House under President Bush to do the same.

The increasingly tough sell of commonwealth in Washington is one reason the PDP is looking for a San Juan solution to status. Acevedo Vilá proposes holding a local referendum to convoke a constituent’s assembly that would try to forge agreement among Puerto Ricans on how to resolve the status issue.

But proponents of the plan, and there are many from all political beliefs, say it will only work if Washington is brought into the process at some point.

When the Young Bill definitions were used as the basis for the 1998 local status referendum, Acevedo Vilá led the campaign for the fifth option, "none of the above," which went on to win. But since then, it’s been up to the party to make the next move.

If it does not like any of the status options being served out of D.C., it needs to come up with one of its own. And somewhere along the way, it’s got to be one that will sell in Washington.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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