The Myth That Washington Does Not Act On Puerto Rico’s Status Issue

March 25, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

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The Myth that Washington Does Not Act on Puerto Rico’s Status Issue

Puerto Rico’s Senate is expected to approve a bill next week for a referendum on July 10th that will seek federal commitments to respond regarding a local choice among status options that provide a democratic form of government at the national government level. The bill calls for federal expressions of commitment before 2007. The territory’s House of Representatives has passed a similar bill.

The Senate’s "commonwealth" party minority leader this week objected to the bill, even though his House counterpart and another leading "commonwealth" party representative helped craft it. His complaints echoed those of Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila -- a fellow party member who had earlier told their party’s House leaders that he would sign the bill. (Acevedo backed away from the bill when nationalists who vote for "commonwealth" candidates criticized it.)

The commonwealthers’ primary complaint was that the bill does not provide for a Commonwealth "Constitutional Assembly" on the territory’s status if there are no federal expressions in response to the referendum by the end of 2006. The premise of the complaint is that the President and the Congress are unlikely to act on the status issue based on past experience.

This premise was offered in a different status bill that Acevedo sent the territory’s Legislative Assembly. It misleadingly characterized several past status resolution efforts.

History, however, suggests that federal officials are likely to act on a Puerto Rican choice of a real status. In fact, it shows that the U.S. officials have repeatedly acted in response to Puerto Rican requests for actions to resolve their status issue. Puerto Rican status initiatives in Washington have faltered because of faulty "commonwealth" proposals and Puerto Rican -- generally "commonwealth" party --- opposition.

Presidents have supported a Puerto Rican status choice for at least six decades. Congress has demonstrated an increasing interest in the issue for more than four decades, an increasing commitment to a Puerto Rican choice for 26 years, and an active commitment for two decades.

On the other hand, Congresses and Presidents have rejected unrealistic "commonwealth" proposals for 52 years -- from a year after a local constitution that named the territorial government "The Commonwealth" replaced the federal law that had previously organized the local government.

These early "commonwealth" rejections came in response to bills in 1953, 1959, and 1963 proposed by the Commonwealth. In addition, "commonwealth" proposals were ultimately -- but privately -- rejected by a top-level White House task force during the Kennedy Administration that concluded its work during the beginning of the Johnson Administration.

"Commonwealth" rejections during the early 1960s led to a law that established a joint federal-territorial status commission. In 1966, it called for a status referendum.

A "commonwealth" proposal won a vote in 1967, but just a year later --in 1968-- the leader of the statehood party was elected governor. At his request, President Nixon named a joint advisory group that supported the extension of the presidential vote to Puerto Rico if sought through a referendum.

Commonwealther Rafael Hernandez Colon was elected governor in 1972 and, at his request, President Nixon appointed a joint advisory group that proposed a "commonwealth" governing arrangement along the lines he proposed. But the proposal was rejected in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Statehooders won the governorship and a majority of the seats in the legislature in 1976, prompting President Ford to propose statehood for the territory.

In 1979, the Congress passed a resolution that generally -- although ambiguously -- supported a Puerto Rican status choice.

When some 350,000 Puerto Ricans petitioned for statehood in 1985, the chairman of the U.S. House committee with jurisdiction over territorial affairs suggested a referendum, leading to the modern era of major congressional and presidential efforts to enable Puerto Ricans to choose the territory’s future status. Statehood referendum bills were introduced, leading the chairman of the House territories subcommittee to propose that the referendum also include "commonwealth" and independence options.

Hernandez Colon agreed to the idea but asked that it not be acted on during his 1988 re-election bid. Once re-elected, however, he pursued it in earnest, obtaining commitments from incoming President George Bush and the chairmen of the Senate committee and the House subcommittee for legislation authorizing a Puerto Rican referendum choice among "commonwealth", statehood, and independence options. The statehood and independence parties joined in the request and President Bush promoted it in his 1989 State of the Union Address.

The House and Senate committees completed approval of bills by the end of the 101st Congress in 1990, but almost all of Hernandez Colon’s specific "commonwealth" proposals were rejected. When the lead Senate committee split 10-10 between two alternative bills in 1991, he asked the Senate and House chairmen to drop the legislation.

Statehooder Pedro Rossello was elected to replace Hernandez Colon in 1992 pledging to have a status referendum among proposals from Puerto Rico’s "Commonwealth", statehood, and independence parties. President Clinton supported the referendum Rossello proposed in 1993.

Neither Clinton nor U.S. House chairmen accepted the "commonwealth’ proposal that "won" the vote, however. It had not received majority support. Further, it made false claims about Puerto Rico’s current status and proposed unrealistic economic benefits.

An example of the claims was an assertion that the federal government could not tax in Puerto Rico. Some federal taxes have been extended to the territory and the federal government has full authority to tax there.

The economic proposals called for:

  • A repeal of a partial extension of income taxes to income companies based in the States attributed to Puerto Rico --which had been enacted into law just two months earlier;
  • Food Stamps level funding for the nutrition assistance grant Puerto Rico gets instead of its residents getting Food Stamps -- which would have cost $600 million a year;
  • The replacement of the grant Puerto Rico gets for aid to the needy aged, blind, and disabled instead of its residents getting Supplemental Security Income checks -- which would have cost $900 million a year; and
  • Trade protection for Puerto Rican agricultural products --- which would have violated U.S. international trade commitments.

The referendum results prompted Clinton to establish an interagency group on Puerto Rico to recommend status resolution and other measures.

In 1995, the Clinton Administration called for federal legislation authorizing a referendum among proposals from Puerto Rico’s three political parties as agreed to by the federal government.

In 1996, the House committee passed a bill authorizing Puerto Ricans to choose between the territory’s current status and the fully democratic options of U.S. statehood and nationhood, with a subsequent choice between those options. Commonwealthers made statehood party successor Pedro Rossello’s bid for re-election a referendum on the legislation.

Rossello won with a majority that no governor had obtained for over three decades.

The 1996 bill was reintroduced a year later --in 1997, but the Clinton Administration called for it to be amended to include a choice among options proposed by all three of Puerto Rico’s parties as agreed to by the federal government, consistent with its 1995 proposal.

A bill with amendments that responded to "commonwealth" parry proposals was approved by the House committee but the party, led by now Governor Acevedo, began a campaign against it. The campaign lobbied members of the House directly and encouraged right-wing groups in the States to do so as well. It targeted the statehood option on the grounds that Puerto Ricans were culturally incompatible with other U.S. citizens and predominantly spoke Spanish and that Puerto Rico had high rates of poverty and unwed births.

The bill passed the House in 1998 and had substantial bipartisan support in the Senate. The "commonwealth" party convinced the Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott (R-MS), and Majority Whip, Don Nickles (R-OK), to oppose it. Lott, in particular, was concerned that a State of Puerto Rico would vote for Democrats more than for Republicans.

Lott and Nickles blocked votes on the bill, prompting Rossello to propose another local referendum. A Democratic threat to propose an amendment supporting the vote to every bill the full Senate considered led to passage of a resolution stating that a referendum proposal for a new status would be considered by the Senate.

The 1998 referendum included Puerto Rico’s four real status options:

  • the status quo, popularly known as "commonwealth" but actually unincorporated U.S. territory status;
  • statehood;
  • independence; and
  • nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end.

It also included a "None of the Above" option.

Acevedo challenged the referendum in court claiming it inaccurately described "commonwealth." The challenge failed.

He then led his party in adopting a new "commonwealth" proposal and said a vote for "None of the Above" would be a vote for it. The proposal was for the Commonwealth to be able to determine the application of federal laws and enter into international agreements that require national sovereignty while the U.S. continues to grant citizenship and all assistance granted U.S. territories.

"None of the Above" won a slight majority; statehood won almost all of the votes for a status option.

In 2000, President Clinton took several steps to clarify Puerto Rico’s status options to Puerto Ricans and to enable them to choose among their real options.

  • He held a summit with the leaders of Puerto Rico’s parties and congressional committee representatives.
  • He proposed --- and won enactment of -- a law providing for a Puerto Rican status choice. The legislation was passed over the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Lott generated by Acevedo and "commonwealth’ party gubernatorial candidate Sila Calderon. It appropriated $2.5 million to the Executive Office of the President for a Puerto Rican choice among proposals from Puerto Rico’s tri-partisan elections commission as agreed to by the President’s Office, with some funding for public education in Puerto Rico about the options.
  • Clinton established a presidential task force to work with Puerto Rican leaders and the congressional committees on the options and the process for Puerto Rico choosing a new status. The task force is to continue to work until Puerto Rico obtains a status that provides for a democratic form of government at the national government level.
  • The Clinton Administration testified to the House committee on the "commonwealth" party’s 1998 proposal for Puerto Rico’s future status, which the party had readopted in 2000, saying that it was an impossibility.
  • In response to requests from the Senate and House committees, the Clinton Administration also submitted a report on the status proposals of all three parties. The report further detailed the impossibility of the "commonwealth" party proposal. It raised only minor issues regarding the proposals of the statehood and independence parties.

President George W. Bush acted to continue the task force shortly after taking office in 2001. His aide on Puerto Rico matters also said that the President supported Puerto Ricans choosing their ultimate status between statehood and independence.

Then Governor Calderon and Acevedo, then Puerto Rico’s representative to the federal government, however, lobbied Bush’s staff against implementation of the status choice law. In addition, the Calderon Administration prevented the elections commission from submitting the necessary status choice proposals to the President’s office.

In December 2003, Bush changed the deadline for a task force report on progress made in resolving the issue until this coming December. His Puerto Rico aide, who heads the task force, has since said that he hopes the report will be issued earlier this year and that it will provide a basis for progress on the issue. He has also said that the administration is reconsidering the "commonwealth" party’s 1998 status proposal, which it readopted again in 2004 and which Acevedo continues to advocate.

The chairman of the Senate committee, Pete Domenici (R-NM), has asked for the Bush Administration’s views on the issue and the top ranking Democrats on the Senate and the House committees, Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Nick Rahall (D-WV), have expressed their commitment to a Puerto Rican choice among the territory’s real status options.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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