Puerto Ricos resident commissioner to the U.S. has more responsibility for representing people than most members of Congress. The official represents six times as many people as any member of the U.S. House of Representatives and more people than many U.S. senators. The resident commissioner has the unique responsibility in federal law of being a representative to the executive branch of the U.S. government while serving in the federal legislative branch. Treated as a "delegate" from a territory with a seat in the House, the resident commissioner is also often recognized as Puerto Ricos representative in the U.S. Senate.
Current Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila ("commonwealth" party/D) has been labeled the territorys "non-resident commissioner" because of his frequent absences from Congress and the nations capital as a whole. Acevedos unprecedented approach to the job may stem from the fact that it is not the one he wanted in 2000. He was given it as a consolation prize when he was passed over for mayor of San Juan by the then mayor and "commonwealth" party president, Sila Calderon, now the territorys governor. His interest in the mayoralty reflected his focus on local politics rather than federal-territorial relations.
Acevedos hands-off approach to the post that he wound up with is so widely disapproved of that his partys candidate to succeed him, Puerto Rico Senator Roberto Prats, has repeatedly said that he, Prats, would move his family to Washington . . . a step Acevedo never took.
Now the "commonwealth" partys president and candidate for governor, Acevedo announced this past week that he had decided to totally forgo the final month of congressional sessions before this years elections. This time period in presidential election years in particular is regularly one of the most active in Congress. Acevedo made the decision, however, in the final two months of a year and a half gubernatorial campaign after failing to narrow the lead of statehood party candidate Rossello.
To explain his absence from his official post, Acevedo asserted to reporters this past week that "nothing of importance is being discussed" in Washington this month. During the course of the week, however, he was repeatedly contradicted by developments specifically concerning Puerto Rico in each house of the Congress in which he serves.
One of the most important actions was taken Wednesday by the Senate Appropriations Committee. It approved a special grant of $544,000 to fight crime in San Juan -- a major problem . . . and a major issue in this election in Puerto Rico. Acevedos presence was not missed because the funds recommended by Subcommittee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-NH) were due to the work of San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini (statehood/R); Acevedo was not responsible for the funding. The resident commissioner apparently considered the funding "nothing of importance."
All of the news in the committees legislation was not good, though. The bill did not provide funds for an initiative to combat domestic violence at Catholic University in Ponce, PR. The program would get funds under an earlier House Appropriations Committee version of the bill proposed by Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Senior Minority Member Jose Serrano (D-NY).
The Senate committee also did not endorse funding backed by the House committee for:
- National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration participation in the environmental clean-up of the former U.S. Navy range on the island of Vieques, PR;
- The protection of coral reefs in the waters of Puerto Rico; and
- A $3 million Census Bureau community survey in the territory.
The most significant action taken this past week was the Senate Appropriations Committees approval Tuesday of $1.4 billion for food assistance for poor Puerto Ricans. The legislation sponsored by Subcommittee Chairman Robert Bennett (R-UT) did not include the program increases that Acevedo earlier claimed he had won. It did, however, provide funding for the research of fire ants that have plagued PR and other places under the U.S. flag.
The Senate Committee also Tuesday provided funds to the Forest Service for educating dependents of personnel in Puerto Rico who will no longer be able to go to a U.S. Department of Defense school at the recently-closed Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in PR. The measure was proposed by Subcommittee Chairman Conrad Burns (R-MT).
The bill did not, however, encourage the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allocate money for mongoose and rabies control in PR or the Natural Resources Conservation Service to protect water and soil resources in Cano Tiburones in PR. The House Appropriations Committee had recommended funding for these purposes due to the leadership of Subcommittee Chairman Charles Taylor (R-NC).
In another Senate Appropriations Committee action Tuesday, $54 million was approved for the construction of the commuter rail system being built in Bayamon, Guaynabo, and San Juan, PR under a Rossello initiative. Rossello won a federal commitment to the funds when he was governor. Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) included the money in the bill.
Under the leadership of Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), the full Senate Tuesday passed a bill that accounts for some $89 million in special assistance to Puerto Rico for operating the territorial government. The funds would come from federal duties collected in Puerto Rico on products being imported into the territory from foreign countries. The grant is also included in the House version of the bill, proposed by Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Hal Rodgers (R-KY).
Although this was a slower week in the House of Representatives than in the Senate because of the Jewish New Year and primary elections, the House did pass a bill to fund Health and Human Services and labor programs for the fiscal year that begins October 1. Puerto Rico has a significant stake in the bill.
A leading member of Puerto Ricos "commonwealth" party who has been an influential member of the national Democratic Party this past week co-founded an organization to maximize the vote of people of Hispanic heritage in the States.
HispanicAction.com was launched by Miguel Lausell, a Puerto Rico lawyer who chairs the Democratic National Committees Hispanic Business Council, and Joe Velasquez, a Deputy White House Political Director under President Bill Clinton.
The initiative was endorsed by the highest ranking Democrat of Hispanic origin in the nation, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.
HispanicAction.com will "register, educate and mobilize" Hispanics with a focus on five States Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Florida. All five are considered particular prizes in this years presidential election. The Hispanic vote may be the determining vote in all five. In Florida -- the biggest prize, the key vote is expected to be that of people of Puerto Rican origin.
HispanicAction.com cannot endorse or oppose individual candidates because of its tax-exempt status. Its outlook, however, favors presidential candidate John Kerry and other Democrats.
Lausell and Velasquez have been working together in a Hispanic-oriented lobbying shop they have set up in Washington.
Like Velasquez, Lausell has been close to Clinton, among other national Democratic Party leaders. He was appointed by the then president to the Board of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a government agency. Seats on the board are highly sought after.
Lausell is an influential figure in the minority wing of the "commonwealth" party that favors Puerto Rico becoming a sovereign nation in free association with the U.S. -- one of Puerto Ricos three options for a status that provides for a democratic form of government at the national government level. He is disliked by Resident Commissioner Acevedo and Governor Calderon because of this and because he has independent connections with national Democratic Party leaders they have cultivated, such as Senator Edward Kennedy (MA).
Acevedo and Calderon have advocated an impossible and one-sided binding association between the U.S. and Puerto Rico that federal official have rejected. In addition to becoming a freely associated state, Puerto Ricos other options for a democratic form of government are U.S. Statehood and independence. Currently, Puerto Rico is unincorporated territory of the U.S., governed at the national government level by the States.