APPROVES US-PUERTO RICO POLITICAL STATUS ACT, HR 856:
PDP COMMONWEALTH DEFINITION AMENDMENT DECISIVELY DEFEATED AFTER LENGTHY DEBATE
MIRIAM RAMIREZ DE FERRER
Washington, DC, May 21, 1997----The Committee on Resources of the House of Representatives voted by a margin of 43-1 to send to the full House the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, HR 856. The House is expected to take up HR 856 in late June or July.
The bipartisan legislation, which was introduced by Rep. Don Young, (R-AK), the Chairman of the Resources Committee, will provide the framework for a three stage process for the resolution of the political status of Puerto Rico. Under the bill, voters in a proposed 1998 will choose among three federally defined status options: the commonwealth status quo, separate sovereignty or statehood. Among its over 80 co-sponsors are House Speaker Newt Gingrich, (R-GA), and Democratic Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, (D-MO).
The markup session, in which the Committee on Resources reviewed a number of bills, largely focused on HR 856 and attempts by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the Committee, to amend the US-Puerto Rico Political Status Act to include the Popular Democratic Partys definition of Commonwealth.
HR 856 as considered by the Committee and ultimately reported out to the full House, defines the commonwealth status quo of Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory of the United States whose residents are statutory US citizens and where the extension, continuation, modification and termination of provisions of the US Constitution and laws, including citizenship, English language requirements, levels of Federal benefits and taxes apply to Puerto Rico as determined by Congressional discretion.
Miller sought to replace this definition with the PDPs substitute which was submitted to the Committee at the request of Chairman Young. At the time of the request Young assured the president of the PDP (and those of the PNP and PIP) that "[Y]our specific definition regarding your status preference will be presented to all of the Committee Members for consideration at the time of mark-up, and will include a vote by the Committee if that is your desire."
The PDP proposal called for a new Commonwealth of Puerto Rico joined in permanent union with the United States under a compact which could only be altered by mutual consent. Puerto Rico would be sovereign over matters governed by the Puerto Rico Constitution, consistent with the Constitution of the US.
Further, US citizenship of persons born in Puerto Rico would be constitutionally guaranteed and they would be entitled to full federal benefits but not subject to federal taxation. Finally, Puerto Rico could enter into international agreements and be exempted from Federal laws to enable it to govern in matters necessary to its economic, social and cultural development.
Millers defense of the PDP proposal, frequently punctuated by his own opposition to commonwealth and skepticism over Congress willingness to grant these extraordinary concessions and powers to a territory, was met by heated debate and opposition from both Democrats and Republicans, alike.
Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero-Barcelo, (D-PR), led the opponents of the PDP definition by analyzing each of its specific proposals. He questioned whether Congress would or could cede its constitutional authority over Puerto Rico by entering into a pact with a territory that could only be altered through mutual consent. As to the matter of full federal benefits without the obligation to pay Federal taxes, the Resident Commissioner said that no one on the mainland would countenance such a situation.
Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, (D-RI), remarked that one Congress could not bind another thus undermining the concept of an unalterable compact except by mutual consent. Further, if he voted for this definition and Congress approved it his own constituents would want similar preferential treatment for Rhode Island. Soon, other states would demand the same privileges.
This sentiment on the PDP definition was echoed by Rep. James Hansen, (R-UT), when he said his state, too, would love such a wonderful deal. "You have all the benefits automatically, without necessarily all the responsibilities. What an extraordinary offer! The people of Puerto Rico would be foolish to reject commonwealth. Congress will have to reject it!"
To this Rep. Billie Tauzin, (R-LA), added that Louisiana would also be envious of the new Puerto Rico commonwealth. On more fundamental levels, he decried the proposed amendment as constitutionally and practically impossible of congressional implementation.
Inclusion in the bill, he added, would only mislead the Puerto Rican electorate and thereby skew the outcome of the plebiscite in favor of commonwealth. Although impossible of execution, what voter could resist a ballot option that offered the best of all possible worlds, all the benefits of US citizenship and Federal programs without any of the obligations including Federal taxation?
Thus, he concluded, Congress should not be party to such an arrangement that would mislead voters as to both its intentions or capabilities. For these reasons the amendment should be defeated.
Finally, Rep. Neil Abercrombie, (D-HI), questioned that part of the proposed definition that referred to the new Commonwealth as an autonomous body politic with its own character and culture. An allusion to statehood opponents who assert that only commonwealth status offers Puerto Ricans security with respect to the retention of their Hispanic heritage and Spanish language.
On the contrary, he said Hawaii has maintained its own distinct identity despite its integration into the Union as the fiftieth state. And, like Puerto Rico, it maintains two official languages consistent with the US Constitutions Tenth amendment reserving to the states the power to determine this issue.
Finally, put to a vote of the full Committee, as promised by Chairman Young, the proposed amendment was defeated 32-10. Subsequently, the Committee voted overwhelmingly, 43-1, to report the bill to the House.
Commonwealth proponents may now find themselves in a difficult position. Prior to the Committees debate and vote they claimed that the legislative process in general and HR 856 in particular had been stacked against them. Now that they have had their day in court -- a lengthy, informed and public debate in the halls of Congress -- the PDP will not be able to raise these same arguments in opposition to HR 856.
The US-Puerto Rico Political Status Act has withstood the initial tests of the democratic process. And, as Chairman Young predicts, it will pass the ultimate challenge when HR 856 is approved by the full House later this summer.