Congress’ Democratic Leaders On Territories Hail Kerry Puerto Rico Plan… Acevedo/Prats Ask Kerry For Clarification And Don’t Accept The Answer… Acevedo Ally Suggests Vote That Doesn’t Count In House For Puerto Rico… Full Vote In House For Non-States Said Constitutional

June 25, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

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Congress’ Democratic Leaders on Territories Hail Kerry Puerto Rico Plan

The Congress’ Democratic leaders on most territories issues June 24th embraced the policy regarding Puerto Rico recently expressed by their party’s expected presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry (MA).

The endorsements came from the senior Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House of Representatives Resources Committee, Senator Jeff Bingaman (NM) and Representative Nick Rahall (WV). They are their party’s managers of legislation emanating from their committees.

The policy is consistent with their records as well as Kerry’s.

The endorsements reinforce the messages that the policy is a party position and sets the federal agenda regarding the territory if Kerry is elected. Statements made in the endorsements also suggest positive action in the Congress if Democrats retake the majority leadership of both houses of Congress or either house -- particularly if like-minded individuals are elected governor and resident commissioner of Puerto Rico.

Democrats’ are now considered to have a real chance of recapturing the majority in the U.S. Senate since Kerry at worst appears even with incumbent president Bush, the presumed Republican standard-bearer. Democrats are now also expected to pick up seats in the House, although Democratic control seems less likely.

The gubernatorial candidates and other leaders of two of Puerto Rico’s three political parties have praised the Kerry plan, including former Governor Pedro Rossello (D-statehood), who leads in the race. Former Senator Ruben Berrios and other leaders of the Independence Party have also hailed the policy. It was also favorably received by leaders of the faction of the "commonwealth" party that advocates Puerto Rico becoming a sovereign nation in a free association with the U.S.

Additionally, the policy has been warmly supported by: the senior member of the U.S. House of Puerto Rican origin, respected Rep. Jose Serrano; the Chair of the Democratic Party in the Bronx, NY, where many of the over one million New Yorkers of Puerto Rican heritage reside, Jose Rivera, a strong Puerto Rican nationalist; and a key leader of the largest organization of Puerto Ricans in Florida, Raul Duany.

The policy has not, however, satisfied the candidates for governor and resident commissioner of Puerto Rico’s "commonwealth" party, Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo and Senator and Democratic committee Chair Roberto Prats.

They have been lobbying for Kerry to change his policy to say that "commonwealth" (meaning a federally-unrecognized political status rather than Puerto Rico’s insular government, which is named, "the Commonwealth" in English) can be a "permanent" option for Puerto Rico’s status. In other words, a Puerto Rican choice of "commonwealth" would end the right of Puerto Ricans to seek nationhood or statehood.

Their request is based on their two basic visions of "commonwealth." Under one, they refuse to accept that Puerto Rico remains a territory of the U.S. even though the laws that they say changed Puerto Rico into a "commonwealth" were explicitly intended to not change Puerto Rico’s status and made no mention of doing so or of a status named "commonwealth."

Under this view, they also refuse to accept repeated determinations by all three branches of the U.S. government that Puerto Rico remains a territory and decisions by presidents and in Congress that Puerto Rico’s status is not considered permanent.

At the heart of the issue is the generally-recognized perpetual right to democracy. Equal, voting representation in one’s government is a fundamental element of that right. "Commonwealth" or territory, Puerto Ricans do not have democracy at the national government level.

Kerry’s policy pledges to work to enable Puerto Ricans to obtain status that provides national government democracy from all status options that are not incompatible with the Constitution and other basic laws and policies of the U.S.

If the democracy condition of a new status eliminates "commonwealth" as it is today (territory status) as a permanent option, the basic policies criteria eliminates the second vision that Acevedo and Prats have of "commonwealth."

Under that vision, the next president of the U.S. will empower the Commonwealth to enter into agreements with foreign countries and, with Congress, agree that the Commonwealth can veto federal laws. The Commonwealth would gain these national government powers without Puerto Ricans losing U.S. grants of citizenship or economic assistance but with additional aid as well.

Federal officials have repeatedly said that such a governing arrangement is impossible as well as unwanted. Acevedo and his political mentor, incumbent Governor Sila Calderon, have used highly-paid Republican lobbyists to get the Bush Administration to not take a stand on the proposal and to do nothing else on the issue despite the petitions of Puerto Rican Republicans.

Kerry’s policy can include a "commonwealth" (territory) option for Puerto Rico’s status but a choice of the option would not resolve the issue. It also notes that he was a sponsor of legislation in 1998 that included a "commonwealth" (territory) option in the context of periodic referenda in which Puerto Ricans could also choose one of the options that would resolve the issue: the fully democratic statuses of independence, national sovereignty in free association with the U.S.

The bill passed the House and appeared to have majority support in the Senate but it was blocked from a vote by the then Republican Leaders Trent Lott (MS) and Don Nickles (OK). Acevedo had convinced Lott to oppose the bill by telling him that Puerto Rico would become a Democratic State. He also enlisted extremely conservative groups in opposing the bill by convincing them that Puerto Ricans are incompatible with other Americans culturally and by temperament.

Acevedo/Prats Ask Kerry For Clarification And Don’t Accept The Answer

Interpreting the Kerry statement regarding "democratic" and "constitutional" status options to the disadvantage of their ideas, Resident Commissioner Acevedo and Senator Prats lobbied and repeatedly called publicly for a Kerry clarification of the statement. They also got leading congressional Democrats to call top campaign officials to express concern.

They received the clarification in repeated statements by the campaign’s press office that were as carefully worded as the Kerry policy. The statements reiterated the policy: It was noted that Puerto Rico could make other status proposals but the policy stated the democratic and constitutional criteria Kerry would follow in deciding whether to act on a proposal. The 1998 bill was also pointed out as a means of implementing policy provisions regarding the status of the territory.

The position was maintained when House Democratic Caucus Chair Bob Menendez (NJ) asked Kerry foreign policy advisor Rand Beers whether there would be a "commonwealth" option under the Kerry policy. Acevedo and Prats trumpeted the answer attributed to Beers that there would be a "commonwealth" option but they did not say that Beers said that "commonwealth" could be a permanent option.

Acevedo and Prats are arguing that "commonwealth" has to be an option for a permanent status because of a letter that Acevedo obtained from Kerry’s office in February. The brief letter referred to "continued status as a commonwealth" as well as independence and statehood as Puerto Rico’s status options.

The letter also, however, defined Puerto Rico as being a territory and referenced Kerry’s sponsorship of the 1998 bill. These provisions undercut the Acevedo and Prats arguments.

Democratic committee Chair Prats, additionally, issued veiled threats against Kerry for changing his position. Kerry campaign sources dismissed the charge noting Kerry’s 1998 bill and the reference to it and to Puerto Rico being a territory in the letter to Acevedo.

Acevedo Ally Suggests Vote That Doesn’t Count In House For Puerto Rico

In an apparent effort to stem the enthusiasm in Puerto Rico for a democratic status prompted by Kerry’s policy, "commonwealth" party resident commissioner candidate Prats said that House Democratic Chair Menendez would restore a limited House voting opportunity for the resident commissioner and the delegates from the other U.S. territories and the District of Columbia (DC).

The opportunity only existed between 1993 and 1995. It permitted the resident commissioner and delegates to vote in the House’s Committee of the Whole.

It is in this ‘committee,’ which is comprised of the entire membership of the House, amendments to legislation are made by all of the representatives of the States in the House sitting together. Bills are, technically, not amended in the full House itself.

In 1992, delegates and then House Natural Resources Committee Chair George Miller (D-CA) proposed that the delegates and resident commissioner be allowed to vote in the Committee of the Whole. They won the support of the House’s Democratic leaders.

The House Democratic Caucus, however, eviscerated the proposal by providing that the votes would not count if they were the deciding factor on any issue. The symbolic votes were approved in 1993 over Republican objections.

Eliminating the votes was one of the first changes that Republicans made when they took over the House in 1995.

Republicans are currently expected to retain control of the House in this year’s elections, making it unclear how Menendez expects to pass his proposal. It is also not clear that other Democrats would support it.

The top Democrat in the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Democratic presidential candidate Kerry, for example, recently opposed a proposal to give DC a vote in the full House. (See item that follows.)

In any case, a vote that doesn’t count is a poor substitute for equal voting representation. A State of Puerto Rico would have six full votes in the House and two in the Senate.

Full Vote In House For Non-States Said Constitutional

The House Government Reform Committee held a hearing June 23rd on proposals to give the District of Columbia voting representation in Congress without it becoming a State.

In addition to proposals that would give DC equal voting representation in both houses of Congress, it took testimony on a proposal by Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-VA) that would give DC a full vote in the House only.

Davis and legal witnesses said the proposal was constitutional because of the Congress’ broad powers to provide for the governing of the seat of the federal government and because lack of representation was not considered when the Constitution was written. To date, U.S. courts have uniformly said that the right to voting representation in the federal government is limited to States.

Since DC would be expected to elect a Democrat, Davis proposal also provides for Utah to gain a seat in the House. Utah would be expected to elect a Republican.

The size of the House, 437 Members, would be reduced to 435, the current number, after the 2010 Census.

Davis’ proposal is not expected to pass this year. It is opposed by House Democratic Leader Pelosi and presidential candidate Kerry and it has not been supported by House Republican leaders.

The proposal, however, has significant implications for Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories. The Congress’ powers to govern them are similar to its power to govern DC. If the Congress can permit a non-State of DC to have votes, it should be able to do the same for the U.S. territories.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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