"SETTLING THE STATUS OF PUERTO RICANS"
(03/07/98, Copyright 1998)
THE issue of self-determination for Puerto Rico isn't really as difficult as the close House vote this week suggests.
House members barely eked out a 209-208 victory to allow Puerto Ricans to vote on their own destiny whether it be statehood, commonwealth or independence. The bill's future in the Senate is less certain.
Puerto Rico is a relic of the end of the Spanish-American War 100 years ago. That the United States is nowhere closer to knowing what to do with it today is perhaps the best case for checking out alternatives.
Puerto Rico's status today gives the U.S. federal government the right to conscript its men into the military services but doesn't permit Puerto Ricans to vote in federal elections. On the up side, they also don't pay federal taxes.
There is sufficient obligation on both sides, however, to warrant looking at a different arrangement. Puerto Ricans should have the full rights to govern themselves or to become full citizens of the United States.
Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth for 46 years. Just five years ago, Puerto Ricans favored continued commonwealth status over statehood in a plebiscite but that required no action by Congress as the current bill would do.
This time around, the House managed to keep the issue fairly straightforward. House members beat back some noxious amendments. One would have required Puerto Ricans if they chose statehood to abide by English-only rules. Another amendment would have allowed Puerto Ricans living elsewhere now to vote on the statehood question.
The debate in this country has largely centered on partisan politics. Democrats have felt they could pick up virtually all of the congressional seats that might be allotted to a Puerto Rican delegation. That's the same reason some Republicans have opposed it. There have been non-partisan concerns, too, that statehood would impose big demands on the federal budget since Puerto Rico is a poor region.
This time, some Republicans changed sides on advice from House Speaker Newt Gingrich, among others, that a vote against statehood would further damage the party with Hispanic voters.
But neither Republicans nor Democrats matter. All that matters is what Puerto Rican citizens want. At last they may have a clear-cut way to find out. Statehood issue viewed in Congress as partisanfight