STATUS OF PUERTO RICO
STATEMENT BY SENATOR FRANK MURKOWSKI - 04/02/98
(Copyright © 1998 by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc.)
This is an important workshop. It marks the beginning of a process
that I intend will ultimately result in the opportunity for the 3.8
million US citizens who reside in Puerto Rico to express their
preference on their future political status.
It has been 100 years since the Treaty of Paris brought Puerto Rico
under the sovereignty of the United States. It has been 80 years since
the extension of United States citizenship to the residents and 50 years
since Congress agreed to extend authority for local self government and
the popular election of the governor. That was a unique event in the
history of territorial policy for the United States. Traditionally,
local self-government came only with either Statehood or, in the case
of the Philippines, Independence.
In passing, I would note that Puerto Rico has been electing its
governor longer than Alaska has. We had to wait for Statehood. There
were even some efforts to entice us with Commonwealth and the ability to
exercise local self-government to divert us from our quest for
Statehood. The same offer was made to Hawaii to divert them.
The resolution of future political status is one of the most important
Constitutional responsibilities of the Congress. Congress is vested with
the power to admit States and the power to dispose of the territory of
the United States. This is one of the fundamental authorities that
affects the nature of our society and government. Thirty-seven times we
have acted to admit new States to the Union. Once we acted to grant
Independence. In the interim, we have governed areas that expanded this
Nation from the thirteen original colonies to a country that stretches
from the Virgin Islands to Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands and
from Maine and Alaska to American Samoa in the South Pacific. We have
tried, not always successfully, to be responsive to the needs and
aspirations of the residents of the territories. I intend to be
successful in our efforts to provide a pathway so that the people of
Puerto Rico can resolve the issue of self-determination once and for
all with certainty.
I am committed to establishing a process that will allow our fellow US
citizens in Puerto Rico to meaningfully express their desires for their
future political status. That process includes the ability of the US
citizens resident in Puerto Rico being able to meaningfully convey to
the Congress their concerns with the present federal relationship as
well as their aspirations for the future. It also requires an
understanding in Congress and the Executive Branch of the precise nature
of the current relationship, a clear exposition of the issues that have
generated the present level of concern from all sides in Puerto Rico
with the present status, an examination of all of the alternatives
available to meet those concerns, and a willingness to expend the time
and effort to resolve those concerns. I have no illusions about the time
and effort that will be required. Unlike most of my colleagues, I have
some personal familiarity with the struggle for status resolution.
I come from a former territory and I understand the unhappiness of
living in a territory subject to decisions made in Washington. I intend
to be far more sensitive and sympathetic to the aspirations and concerns
in Puerto Rico than the federal government was to either Alaska or
Hawaii in our quest for status. A little history might be helpful.
Alaska was purchased for $7.2 million in 1867 from Russia with
citizenship except for the "uncivilized native tribes". Full citizenship
to all residents was not extended until 1915. Alaska was subject to
military government for 17 years. When we requested the extension of the
homestead laws in order to settle the territory, our requests were
ignored by Washington. The Organic Act of 1884 provided for civil
government with an appointed governor but did not provide for either a
legislative assembly or a delegate to Congress. Finally, in 1906,
thirty-nine years after acquisition, we were finally granted a
non-voting Delegate in the House. In 1912, an Organic Act provided for
a local legislature with limited authority subject to veto by an
appointed governor as well as by Congress.
In some respects Puerto Rico obtained greater local self-government
faster than we did in Alaska. In 1950, Puerto Rico had an elective
Governor and Constitution while Alaska was still subject to appointed
officials. While we now have an elected Governor and Statehood, we are
still subject to appointed officials, but that is a different issue.
Unfortunately, too many people seem to not comprehend how important
and complex this issue is. The 209-208 vote in the House emphasizes the
need for full, deliberate, and thoughtful consideration to ensure that
all issues are fully and fairly considered and that all Members are
comfortable with factual information before the Senate attempts to
craft legislation. I would note that Congressman Young has done a
remarkable amount of work over the past three years in bringing his
legislation through the House. This was the first time that the House
had taken the issue of Puerto Rico self-determination seriously.
Previous legislation had been considered only after it was clear that
there would be no consideration in the Senate.
The division in the House was mirrored in Puerto Rico in their last
referendum when the present status received 48%, statehood received 46%,
with others voting for independence. Generally, Congress has become
involved only after the residents have decided on a particular status
option and not when there are alternatives. Given the divisions within
Puerto Rico, unless the Committee is careful, the process of
self-determination can become entangled in local politics both between
the political parties in Puerto Rico and within the parties. I don't
think that is particularly helpful.
Puerto Rico is unique in many ways and the debate in the House
demonstrated how critical it is that everyone understand the unique
character of the present relationship and the reasons why it is unique:
- Unlike other areas that have considered Statehood, Puerto Rico has
never been incorporated and the Constitution does not fully apply;
- Unlike the Philippines, the residents of Puerto Rico are all United
States citizens and have been for eighty years.
The origins of this situation are illustrative of the inconsistency in
federal policy that seems to have characterized our treatment of all
areas since the Supreme Court handed down the Insular Cases early this
century. In the period 1917-1918, the federal government conferred
citizenship, treating the residents of Puerto Rico as part of the United
States, and severed the fiscal relationship and obligation of citizens
under the Internal Revenue Laws, effectively treating Puerto Rico and
the residents as if it were a foreign country. That internal
inconsistency continues and is part of the frustration at the local
level and the concerns raised at the federal level. I would note that
inconsistency is not limited to Puerto Rico.
On Tuesday of this week, we held hearings to consider legislation
affecting the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The Northern
Mariana Islands lie just north of Guam, which is the southernmost of the
Mariana chain. The United States acquired Guam at the same time as
Puerto Rico and then extended sovereignty over the remainder of the
Marianas pursuant to a Covenant entered into in 1976. The Northern
Marianas now controls immigration, Guam does not. The Northern Marianas
controls minimum wage, Guam is under federal legislation. The Northern
Marianas is exempt from the Jones Act provisions on vessels while Guam
is subject to those provisions. Those are not Constitutional issues and
a change will not affect status, but it does point out that we do not.
always take into account how other areas are treated.
While we appreciate the shortness of the session and the difficulty of
scheduling floor time in the Senate, it will be far more difficult and
unrewarding if we try to rush a measure without full consideration. This
Committee has dealt with the issue of political status for Puerto Rico
In 1989-91, the Committee undertook a comprehensive series of hearings
and meetings in Washington and in Puerto Rico on status legislation. In
1989, our Committee held eight days of hearings (morning and afternoon)
and four days of mark-ups prior to sending legislation to the Finance
and Agriculture Committees for further consideration. That was a
monumental undertaking. The Committee considered almost all aspects of
federal and international law affecting Puerto Rico and the various
status options. Unfortunately, many of the assumptions and analyses
that were undertaken at that time are now dated.
While we do not have to repeat all our actions, I hope that this
workshop format will enable the Members of the Committee to discuss the
various issues involved in any status discussion prior to the actual
consideration of specific legislation.
While we have not settled on a particular schedule, our discussions in
San Juan last year did help to define some issues that deserve
consideration. A partial list would include:
- What are the historical and constitutional aspects of territorial
self-determination and how do they relate to Puerto Rico's present
- What are the fiscal consequences of a change in status on federal
revenues and expenditures - how many are inescapable due to
Constitutional limitations and how many could be altered through
- What is the economic structure of Puerto Rico and what changes
would need to be made to accommodate a change in status?
- What are the economic consequences of a change in status?
- What are the Constitutional aspects of a change in status for an
These are not exclusive, and obviously some of them could be
considered together. They do illustrate, however, that there are serious
issues that need to be considered seriously.
I am committed to doing that and I am committed to using this format
to develop a process that will enable our fellow citizens to knowingly
express their aspirations.
The Entire Transcript for the Workshop