U.S. Likely To Make Expression Sought In New Puerto Rico Status Bill… Bhatia To Hire Lobbyists To Fight Proposal Already Rejected In Congress… Rumsfeld Cuts Base Closing Target; Navy Secretary To Become Deputy

April 1, 2005
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U.S. Likely to Make Expression Sought in New Puerto Rico Status Bill

Both houses of Puerto Rico’s Legislative Assembly late Thursday unanimously passed a bill to seek U.S. Government consideration of replacing the territory’s status that Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila ("commonwealth" party) said he will sign.

The bill calls a referendum July 10 to petition the Congress and the President for expressions by the end of 2006 of a commitment to respond to a choice of a status that provides a democratic form of government at the national level (that is, Puerto Rican voting representation in the making and application of national laws, with the nation being either PR or the U.S.).

The bill also establishes a tri-partisan committee to lobby for the federal expressions.

If there are no such expressions, the legislature would in 2007 consider legislation for a referendum among options of: asking the Congress for a referendum on fully-democratic options; a local "Constitutional Assembly" to propose such a status; or other measures.

Since Acevedo wants a "Constitutional Assembly" and, thus, would have an incentive to quietly lobby federal officials to not make the requested expressions, the bill includes a prohibition on using government funds for such lobbying. So, in saying that he would sign the bill, Acevedo called upon private citizens to lobby the federal government in favor of his "Constitutional Assembly."

The bill was proposed by the Independence Party. It initially passed the House of Representatives with the votes of the statehooders and some commonwealthers and Acevedo privately telling "commonwealth" party leaders he would sign the bill. But Acevedo backed away from the commitment when some nationalists opposed the measure.

The governor publicly agreed to sign it when Senator Pedro Rossello (statehood), whom he narrowly defeated for the governorship, and other senators agreed to give Acevedo a consolation prize. It is the consideration of another process on the issue, including Acevedo’s proposed "Constitutional Assembly," in 2007 if federal officials make no expressions before then of a commitment to respond to a Puerto Rican choice of a fully-democratic status option.

This bill represents the first consensus among Puerto Rico’s political parties on a status process since 1990 and the first consensus within memory on substance of the issue. The petition would presumably pass the July 10 referendum by a large margin. It would provide the first statement in the same language ever that most Puerto Ricans want to replace Puerto Rico’s status as unincorporated U.S. territory. The expected referendum vote would also provide the first unified statement since 1990 that Puerto Ricans want the federal government to act on the issue.

The requested federal expressions should be expected. There have been many in the past.

  • Presidents have supported a Puerto Rican status choice for at least six decades.
  • Rejections of unrealistic "commonwealth" proposals in the 1950s and early 1960s resulted in a federal law that established a joint federal-territorial status commission. In 1966, it called for a status referendum.
  • A "commonwealth" proposal won a 1967 referendum and a joint presidential-gubernatorial advisory group was established on it. But even a modified version of the proposal was rejected in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • 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, leaders of the U.S. House committee with jurisdiction over territorial affairs suggested a referendum.
  • When the leaders of Puerto Rico’s "commonwealth," statehood, and independence parties jointly asked for federal legislation authorizing a status choice in 1989, President George Bush and the chairmen of the Senate committee and the House subcommittee worked for such a bill. The House and Senate committees completed approval of bills in 1990, but most of the "commonwealth" party governor’s "commonwealth proposals were rejected. When the lead Senate committee split 10 to 10 between two alternative bills in 1991, the governor asked the Senate and House chairmen to drop the legislation.
  • When Rossello as governor called a referendum in 1993, it was supported by President Clinton. Neither Clinton nor U.S. House chairmen could accept the unrealistic "commonwealth" economic proposal that "won" without a majority of the vote, however.
  • 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 U.S. 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. The bill was controversial because "commonwealth" party proposals had not been considered and it did not pass the House.
  • In 1998, a bill with amendments that responded to "commonwealth" party proposals was approved by the House but the "commonwealth party, led by now Governor Acevedo, campaigned against it. The bill had substantial bipartisan support in the Senate but Acevedo convinced Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott (R-MS) and Majority Whip, Don Nickles (R-OK) to oppose it.
  • Later in 1998, the full Senate passed a resolution stating that a status change proposal from a local referendum called by Rossello would be considered by the Senate.? No status option won a majority in the referendum, however.
  • In 2000, President Clinton held a summit on how to resolve the status issue with the leaders of Puerto Rico’s parties and congressional committee representatives.
  • In 2000, Clinton proposed --- and won enactment of -- a law providing for a Puerto Rican status choice. The legislation was passed over the opposition of 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.
  • In 2000, Clinton also 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.
  • In 2000, the Clinton Administration testified to the House committee on territories on the "commonwealth" party’s proposal for Puerto Rico’s future status, saying that it was an impossibility.
  • In response to requests from the Senate and House committees, in 2001, the Clinton Administration 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 presidential task force shortly after taking office in 2001. His aide on Puerto Rico matters 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, acted against implementation of the status choice law and lobbied against activation of the task force.
  • In 2003, Bush established this coming December 6 as a deadline for a task force report on progress made in resolving the issue.
  • Last year, the chairman of the Senate committee asked for the Bush Administration’s views on the issue and this year the top ranking Democrat on the Senate committee suggested hearings this year when the task force submits its report.

Bhatia to Hire Lobbyists to Fight Proposal Already Rejected in Congress

Governor Acevedo’s chief aide in the States, Eduardo Bhatia, said Thursday that he would hire lobbyists to fight a proposal that has already been defeated in the Congress.

Bhatia, Director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said that lobbyists would be employed to fight a proposal in President Bush’s 2006 budget that would cut the Community Development Block Grant program by 40%.

However, earlier in March, the U.S. Senate rejected the proposal by a decisive vote of 66 to 31. And Bush Administration officials had earlier said that the reduction in funding would not have been as great in Puerto Rico since almost half its population is below the federal poverty level.

Most of the lobbying against the proposal was done by the nation’s mayors since the grants fund local projects. San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini (statehood) was among the mayors who convinced senators to oppose the proposal.

Private lobbyists would not have been as effective as mayors in lobbying against the proposal.

Bhatia also said the lobbyists would oppose Bush’s proposals to cut the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Vocational Education programs. But the U.S. Senate has already voted to add $5.4 billion to Bush’s budget for education programs. Additionally, Bush’s budget proposed increasing school programs for Puerto Rico from $468 million to $536 million.

The facts raise questions about Bhatia’s understanding of the issues and real purpose for hiring the lobbyists.

Rumsfeld Cuts Base Closing Target; Navy Secretary to become Deputy

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has reduced his estimate of the amount of military base capacity that should be closed through a consolidation process this year.

In 2001, Rumsfeld suggested that the process should eliminate 25% of U.S. military bases. More recently, he estimated the cuts in the 20-25% range. Tuesday, he said the cuts that the Pentagon would recommend next month will be less than 20%.

The lower estimate may provide some encouragement to Puerto Rico leaders hoping that the Army’s Fort Buchanan in the San Juan area will remain in existence. The last U.S. military base in Puerto Rico has been on a Defense Department preliminary list of bases to be shuttered.

Puerto Rico Secretary of State-Designate Marisara Pont recently announced a campaign to preserve the base with the repeal of a law imposing a moratorium on improvements to the facility as the first priority. Pont did not explain that the moratorium had been put in place because of the Puerto Rican campaign to close the Navy training range on the island of Vieques, PR. The U.S. Senate authors of the moratorium reasoned that, if the range closed, activities at Ft. Buchanan, which is located in a high real estate cost area, could be moved to the Navy’s Roosevelt Roads station, which is in a less-costly location, since most of Roosevelt Roads’ functions supported the Vieques training.

The Navy subsequently convinced the Congress and the President to close Roosevelt Roads because then Governor Sila Calderon ("commonwealth" party) broke a Federal-Commonwealth agreement on the closure of the range, trying to force the federal government to close it immediately. Calderon’s anti-U.S. military approach also helped convince the U.S. Army to move its Southern Command out of Puerto Rico after it had only been there a couple of years.

Meanwhile, it has been reported that President Bush will nominate Navy Secretary Gordon England to the Defense Department’s number two post -- Deputy Secretary. England oversaw the closures of the Vieques range and Roosevelt Roads. He developed a distrust of Calderon because of her misrepresentation of Defense Department contacts.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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