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Another Day In Congress For The Status Issue

by Lance Oliver

October 6, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Leaders of the Popular Democratic Party dismissed this week’s hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives on Puerto Rico’s status as an attempt to discredit commonwealth and to push for statehood.

They were slightly off on both those counts. In Washington, commonwealth is already largely discredited, and while some of those who organized the hearing do support statehood, in general the support in the Congress for making Puerto Rico the 51st state is neither broad nor deep.

Wednesday’s hearing by the House Resources Committee was beamed back to Puerto Rico where reality is seen through different prisms than it is in Washington. In Puerto Rico, large numbers of people still believe that commonwealth can be "enhanced." They can (and do) still assert that Puerto Rico does not fall under the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution. They state that Puerto Rico is not a colony.

Those opinions, adopted by either all of the PDP or factions of it, are believed by hardly anyone in the U.S. capital, in the halls of the United Nations or anywhere else.

The focus of this week’s Congressional hearing was a bill filed by California Republican Rep. John Doolittle. Doolittle filed a bill proposing the type of "enhanced commonwealth" PDP officials have said in the past they want. His purpose was not to attempt the impossible task of passing the bill, but to spur discussion of the status issue and then vote against his own bill.

Seeing how the deck was stacked, the PDP boycotted the hearing. That left commonwealth’s opponents free rein to list all the reasons why "enhancing" commonwealth was not in the cards.

Essentially, the argument against "enhancement" goes back to the U.S. Constitution, which contemplates three types of relationships with the United States: a state or a territory, as part of the union, or a separate, sovereign country. Enhancing commonwealth as the PDP has asked for, said those testifying at the hearing, would mean mixing sovereignty with elements of statehood, such as permanent union.

Or, as some members of Congress put it bluntly, Puerto Rico can’t have all the advantages of being a state while not paying federal taxes and having the right to opt out of federal requirements it doesn’t like.

While commonwealth has few enthusiastic supporters in Washington, the vote on the Young status bill two years ago showed that support for statehood in Washington is neither broad nor deep. The House could barely muster a one-vote margin to pass the bill despite support from the majority Republican leadership, and that bill would have done nothing more than authorize a vote. It would have committed the Congress to nothing, yet still the House balked.

And the Senate never even brought it to a vote.

Therein lies the reason for the status stalemate of today.

The real strength commonwealth has is two-fold: it is the status quo and the alternatives lack majority support among Puerto Ricans. That situation will have to change dramatically before Puerto Rico’s status will ever change.

Barring an overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans requesting statehood, reaching a critical mass that Congress would find it hard to ignore, or a Congress so eager to shed Puerto Rico that it forces independence on an unwilling people, commonwealth will continue to rule by default. That’s why the PDP leadership could safely boycott this week’s hearing.

The pro-commonwealth leadership may have been off the mark in saying the hearing was a ploy to promote statehood, for the same reasons. Another high-ranking PDP leader called the hearing a "circus." That criticism was a little closer, but also missed the bull’s-eye. The hearing was a bit of an empty show because of the insincerity of the intentions of the Representative who introduced the bill.

But at least, finally, the status discussion was back where it belonged: in Congress. As much as the hearing may have been inconsequential, any discussion of Puerto Rico’s status in Congress is more meaningful than a purely symbolic event such as the White House status conference held earlier this year, and all three Puerto Rican political parties, including the PDP, found time to show up for that discussion.

Maybe this wasn’t the week that the status issue was moved forward in Washington, but when it does, it will happen in Congress, where this week’s hearing took place.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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