May 6, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Do You Want To Change The Islands Legislature?
The Puerto Rico constitutional referendum previously planned for July 10th is postponed and may be abandoned altogether. The proposal would give islanders the chance to decide if the present bicameral legislature -- consisting of both a House of Representatives and a Senate -- is to remain in place or be transformed into a single, or unicameral, legislative chamber.
Last February, the Senate voted down the referendum but, so far, Governor Acevedo Vilá has kept it alive. As things presently stand, there is $2.8 million allocated for mounting the vote but Commonwealth "bean counters" say that more is needed. So far, Senate President Kenneth McClintock says that he will not approve additional funds, leading to speculation that the vote could be postponed indefinitely or eventually killed. Experts say that the Governor could still authorize the referendum by Executive Order.
The constitutional referendum was put in place by the previous administration of Governor Sila Calderón and her like-minded Popular Democratic Party (PDP) legislature, but she insisted that the referendum not take place during her term in office, leaving its implementation to successor administrations. Her reasoning for the bill was that running the legislature in its present form was too much of a drain on the Commonwealth government budget, with total funds allocated to the House and Senate averaging $106 million annually, or $1.3 million per legislator.
What is clear is that the current New Progressive Party (NPP) majority in both houses of the legislature has a different view of the issue than did the previous PDP occupants of both chambers. In the debates surrounding the legislation to kill the referendum law, NPP Senators and Representatives said that the money required to mount the vote should be used for more urgent needs. They also expressed dissatisfaction with the concept of a single parliamentary body.
Article III of the Puerto Rico Constitution provides for a legislative assembly consisting of two houses, "the Senate and the House of Representatives, whose members shall be elected by direct vote at each general election." It further authorizes twenty-seven Senators and fifty-one Representatives, with the provision that the number will increase to prevent any one political party from controlling more than 75% of the seats in the House of Representatives.
Proponents for change argue that by amending the Constitution to move to a single legislative body, administrative costs would be reduced, conference committees would be eliminated and partisan caucuses would be weakened or eliminated. In Nebraska, the only one of the fifty U.S. states with a unicameral legislature, individuals run for office without a party affiliation. Since Article III has much to say about the relationship of political parties to the configuration of legislative bodies, changing it would have a profound effect on the influence of party politics to island governance.
Many think that that would be a good thing, but it is not surprising that the NPP, now holding great power in both legislative bodies, is loath to see a change. When the proposed change in legislative organization was first discussed in 2003, proponents of a unicameral system envisioned that it would bring on the day of the "citizen legislator," or individuals dedicated to the good of the island and uncommitted to political party discipline. Even a casual observer of the political gridlock now seen in Puerto Rico might welcome any change that would bring on more cooperation and comity.
In a recent "op-ed" in Caribbean Business, former PDP governor Rafael Hernández Colón expressed opposition to a unicameral system, although he understands why some Puerto Ricans want to see changes in the current arrangement. "The outlandish behavior of some members of our bicameral Legislature (has) deeply offended Puerto Rican public opinion. The lavish privileges they have vested upon themselves, their waste of time on ceremonial banalities, their insensitivity to the desire of the Puerto Rican people to have a serious, hard-working legislature focused on our real problems has exasperated the public to the extent that it wants to change the Constitution to put the house in order."
Carlos Romero Barceló, an NPP former governor, agrees with his political opponent of long standing about the unsuitability of a unicameral system. In the same publication, he argues that such a change would be out of context for the type of local government that Puerto Rico has established, and further, that instituting such an arrangement would not correct the problems seen in the current bicameral system. His main concern is that it would give the single legislative body too much power. "If we were to establish in Puerto Rico a unicameral legislature with all the powers that both chambers now have separately, the president of that legislative body would be much more powerful than the governor without bearing the responsibilities to carry out the duties of government and to implement the public policy and programs approved and enacted by the legislature."
Political scientists and students of legislatures have long debated the relative merits of bicameral and unicameral state legislatures and it was a subject of debate among the founding fathers who fashioned the U.S. Constitution, after which the Puerto Rico Constitution is based. For generations, all new states entering the Union adopted the bicameral model but, in the 1930s, Nebraska changed to a unicameral legislature.
Since that time, many Nebraskans hold up their model as less expensive, less partisan and more accountable to the electorate. The fear at first expressed -- that a single legislative body accumulate too much power and would usurp the power of the Governor -- has not occurred. Finally it is posited that Nebraskas legislative process, when compared with other states, produces better law in a more efficient process.
The fact that no other state has made the change seems to indicate that Nebraska is alone in its admiration of a unicameral legislature.
This week, Herald readers can register an opinion about their own satisfaction with the present arrangement or express a desire to see the Puerto Rico Legislature reduced to a single chamber.
What is your vision of a legislature for Puerto Rico?
Please vote above!