Puerto Rico Status Bill Will Need House GOP Majority Under New Rule... Acevedo Tries To Hide Setbacks In Spending Bill... Bush May Implement Clinton-Rossello PR Housing Agreement... Recount Could Lower Fortuno’s Rank In House... Wall Street Journal: Don’t Count Puerto Rico’s Double-Marked Ballots

December 3, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

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Puerto Rico Status Bill Will Need House GOP Majority Under New Rule

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) has established a controversial new rule that will require that a majority of House Republicans support legislation in order for it to be passed.

In recent decades at least, a bill could be passed by a majority of the House whether or not a majority of members of the majority party supported the measure.

The new rule would have prevented the passage of a bill in 1998 that would have enabled Puerto Ricans to choose the territory’s ultimate political status. That bill passed with the votes of most Democrats but only a minority of Republicans even though Republicans held a majority of the seats in the House, as they do now.

The rule would not have prevented the approval, however, of the first law supporting a Puerto Rican status choice. That legislation passed with majority support from both parties due to the efforts of the White House of then President Bill Clinton and the largest national organization of citizens of Latino heritage.

The legislation supported a Puerto Rican choice of the territory’s future status from among proposals by the Commonwealth’s political parties to the extent approved by the White House. It was not implemented because of the opposition of Commonwealth Governor Sila Calderon ("commonwealth" party/no national party).

The new rule suggests another reason that the cause of Puerto Rican democracy is better off with last month’s election of statehood party candidate Luis Fortuno as the Commonwealth’s resident commissioner in the U.S. Fortuno is a member of the Republican National Committee and enjoys strong support among House Republican leaders and new members and the White House of Republican President George W. Bush. Fortuno’s main opponent in the election, the candidate of the "commonwealth" party, was the chairman of Puerto Rico’s Democratic Party committee.

The new rule is further reducing the power of Democrats in the House. Their role in legislation had already been substantially limited by their exclusion from many negotiations on bills in both the House and in House-Senate ‘conference’ committees to resolve differences in House and Senate versions of legislation.

Before House Republican leaders instituted this practice, minority party leaders were often given a say in the construction of major bills. Now bipartisan legislating only takes place on relatively minor matters. It should be noted, however, that many Puerto Rico matters -- even some status questions -- fall into the ‘minor matter’ category in the Congress.

Senate Democrats will continue to wield substantial power, however, in the 109th Congress, which takes office next January 3rd. Republicans will have a majority in the Senate but are five seats short of the 60 votes needed to control the 100-member Senate on controversial measures under current rules.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) is considering a rule change to limit the power of Democrats, however. The new rule would only require a simple majority -- 50 votes -- for the confirmation of judges.

Frist’s idea has met with even more resistance than Hastert’s rule, however. Even some Republicans doubt its wisdom because of the implications for Republican judicial nominees if Democrats win a majority in the Senate.

Acevedo Tries To Hide Setbacks In Spending Bill

"Commonwealth" party gubernatorial hopeful Anibal Acevedo Vila only told Puerto Ricans part of the story when he recently announced details of a $388 billion federal spending bill that the Congress is expected to pass in final form next week.

As he has in the past, Acevedo omitted information on his failures in the bill -- some embarrassing ones.

As Puerto Rico’s resident (supposedly) commissioner in the U.S., Acevedo is the territory’s official representative to the federal government and is the Commonwealth’s sole representative in the Congress. He has a seat in the House of Representatives but a vote only in its committees and caucuses.

The $388 billion bill will fund much of the government for the rest of fiscal year 2005, which began October 1st.

The provision of the bill that must upset Acevedo the most exempts a Justice Assistance (crime-fighting) Grant to Puerto Rico from the grant program's special rule for the Commonwealth obtained by Acevedo. The special rule provides that Puerto Rico’s grants are to go the Commonwealth government rather than to municipalities as in the States.

The Acevedo rule chagrined mayors who are members of Puerto Rico’s U.S. Statehood party. They have felt that the administration of Acevedo’s mentor, Governor Sila Calderon, denied their communities needed police assistance.

Adding insult to injury -- as well as providing needed crime-control aid -- the bill also earmarks $125,000 for crime-fighting in Bayamon and Guaynabo, municipalities that suffer from the San Juan metro area’s high crime rates.

The municipalities both have mayors who are members of the statehood party and are represented in Washington by former Commonwealth Secretary of Justice Jose Fuentes Agostini, a leader of the national Republican Party’s outreach to Hispanic voters.

The senior member of the House of Puerto Rican origin, Representative Jose Serrano (D-NY), reportedly helped obtain the provisions. Serrano is also the senior Democrat on the subcommittee on appropriations (funding) for the Justice Department and other federal agencies.

At the same time, Acevedo reportedly failed to win a $544,000 crime-control grant for the San Juan metro area that may need it the most: the City of San Juan. The Senate Appropriations Committee had approved the grant September 15th but Acevedo has not been on the job in Washington for months, contending that nothing important was happening here while he campaigned for governor in Puerto Rico.

Acevedo also embarrassingly failed to obtain nearly $7.7 million for three important water — including flood control — projects. The losses were especially embarrassing because:

(A) The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funding was supported by President Bush;

(B) The Congress only made a handful of cuts in hundreds of water projects supported by Bush; and

(C) The Congress added $374.6 million in water projects spending to the bill over the amount that Bush supported.

Acevedo’s biggest water projects loss is the entire $2,396,000 requested for the Guanajibo River. In addition, the Portugues and Bucana Rivers project is being cut from $15,786,000 to $13 million and the Puerto Nuevo project is being cut from $17 million to $14.5 million.

Another limited water projects accomplishment for Acevedo is $4 million to improve the quality of the San Juan area drinking water system. President Bush supported $8 million for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) project last year. When Acevedo failed to obtain it, Calderon said that the Commonwealth government would pay for it if the federal government would not. Calderon’s offer resulted in the Bush Administration proposing a 50/50 Federal/territorial split in the payment for the project.

The bill would also appropriate $35,000 to the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers to study the Yaguez River in Mayaguez.

Acevedo’s biggest loss in the bill was $10,180,000 for Tren Urbano, the about-to-open commuter rail system linking Bayamon, Guaynabo, and San Juan. $44,620,000 for Tren Urbano represented a reduction from the $54.8 million proposed by President Bush.

The loss is particularly uncomfortable for Acevedo because the funds were covered under a full funding agreement for the project obtained by his rival for the governorship, the statehood party’s Pedro Rossello, when Rossello was governor before.

An acutely awkward failure for Acevedo came in the largest appropriation for Puerto Rico in the bill: $1,443,000,000 for the special food aid program for the Commonwealth’s low-income residents. The amount does not include a $10 million-a-year increase in funding that he announced with a lot of fanfare a couple of years ago.

Federal officials say that the increase was never approved, contrary to Acevedo’s announcement that it had been. The only increase in the grant for the nutrition assistance program is an annual inflation hike that was originated before Acevedo became resident commissioner.

Another success in the bill for lobbyists other than official one Acevedo is $1.9 million for mini-buses in the San Juan area municipality of Carolina. The municipality has been represented by "commonwealth" party strategist Ramon Luis Lugo and Annie Mayol, who was the campaign manager for Acevedo’s statehood party successor as resident commissioner, Luis Fortuno.

Another contribution to the bill by Rep. Serrano is funding for the Commerce Department’s National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to work the Departments of Defense and Interior and EPA on "their Vieques clean-up responsibilities." The Commerce Department is also funded by Serrano’s subcommittee.

The bill includes three provisions to help Puerto Rico’s health system.

  • $450,000 is being granted for a pilot program to prevent elderly Puerto Ricans from making mistakes in taking medicine.
  • $350,000 would be given for stipends to medical doctors in the hospital residency stage of their training "to improve the supply of physicians in Puerto Rico."
  • And the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services were encouraged to provide technical assistance to the Commonwealth government to help it obtain grants for health system information options that the Calderon Administration has failed to get.

Two provisions of the bill are an effort to address family problems in the Commonwealth. $600,000 would be granted to computerize the information system for child welfare and related programs. Catholic University’s anti-domestic violence program would receive $100,000.

Bush May Implement Clinton-Rossello PR Housing Agreement

The Bush Administration is considering a proposed Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulation that would revise the subsidy for the nation’s local public housing authorities.

The proposed regulation would mean as much as $50 million a year more for operating Puerto Rico’s quarter of a million public housing units.

Current regulations impose special limits on the subsidy to the Commonwealth that are not imposed on the aid in the States. The limits mean that Puerto Rico’s subsidy per apartment is at a much lesser level than the subsidy in the States.

Officials have said that the limits have been more a factor of a desire to save money and the Commonwealth’s lack of votes in the federal government than related to the territory’s housing conditions.

During the Rossello Administration, congressional appropriations committees urged HUD to revise the subsidy formula.

HUD made some changes at the request of Rossello and then President Clinton’s White House. In 2000, a lawsuit initiated by Rossello against the administrative "discrimination" led to an agreement between aides to Rossello and Clinton and HUD officials that the territory would be treated equally with the States in a revised subsidy formula planned for 2001.

Four years after the agreement, a revised formula is finally being studied by the President’s Office of Management and Budget, which passes on regulations that federal executive branch agencies propose. The office is expected to act on the proposal before the end of this year.

Resident Commissioner Acevedo Vila has tried to get into the act with a letter asking OMB to expedite its consideration of the national regulation.

Recount Could Lower Fortuno’s Rank In House

The delay in the recounting of Puerto Rico’s November 2nd elections votes necessitated by questions about the gubernatorial results could put the acknowledged winner of the resident commissioner contest at the bottom of the ‘totem pole’ in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Winner Fortuno needs to be certified as the winner by December 17th to be listed ahead of some newly elected representatives in the House’s seniority system. Many House privileges, such as chairmanships and speaking turns, are ordered on the basis of length of service, known as "seniority."

The recounting of the November 2nd ballots began this past week after delays due to decisions by the president of the Commonwealth Elections Commission in favor of procedures favored by "commonwealth" party candidate Acevedo.

Fortuno is expected to be named to the House’s Resources Committee, its lead committee on most territories issues, and either the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee or the Financial Services Committee.

Acevedo, a Democrat, has been a member of three committees: Agriculture and Small Business in addition to Resources. He rarely attended committee — or caucus — meetings, however, let alone full House sessions.

Republican rules limit House Republicans to two committee assignments. Rules of the smaller Democratic contingent in the House permit Democrats to serve on three legislative committees.

Many of the House’s legislative decisions are made in its committees.

Wall Street Journal: Don’t Count Puerto Rico’s Double-Marked Ballots

The disputed ballots in Puerto Rico’s gubernatorial election should not be counted, according to the influential national daily print newspaper The Wall Street Journal.

Not counting the ballots would presumably mean the election of statehood party candidate Rossello. Counting the ballots would probably result in Resident Commissioner Acevedo winning.

In an editorial today, December 3rd, the paper contended that "it seems obvious that the triple-X ballots deserve to be discarded as confusing and possibly fraudulent."

The Journal opinion piece explained that the ballots in question were contradictorily marked both for the Independence Party slate of candidates and for the "commonwealth" party candidates for governor and resident commissioner on the same sheet of paper. The dual marking (through three "X"s) "makes it impossible to determine" the voter’s "true intent," the editorial stated.

The paper also noted that some of the triple-X ballots were marked for the Independence Party in the pencil that voters are given when they enter the voting booth but also for Acevedo and the "commonwealth" party resident commissioner candidate in pen. This suggests "that the inked X’s were fraudulently added later," the paper wrote. It also said that "[e]lection workers report that the triple-X ballots didn’t begin to show up until late on election night, as it became clear that Mr. Rossello was winning."

Referencing the fact that the triple-marked ballots violated the instructions for the voting, the paper asserted, "Election laws ought to mean something; you can’t change the rules after the votes have been cast."

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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