Following yesterday’s appearance of Puerto Rico’s top political leadership before the United States Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources, the ripples have been felt through the local political stratosphere. Here are the top 10 takeaways from the hearing:
1. Congress is convinced the current territorial status was rejected
Despite Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla‘s attempts at discrediting the results of the 2012 plebiscite, in particular of the first question which asked voters whether they wished to keep the current territorial status, where 54% selected the no option, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Lisa Murkowsky (R-AK) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) all seemed to resoundingly agree that the current territorial status, which is the commonwealth status AGP tried to establish, was rejected. First Wyden and Murkowski in their respective opening remarks made it clear that was their position, then Wyden asked those presenting whether the territorial status ought to be included in a ballot which prompted Garcia Padilla to make a lengthy, yet failed attempt (he was interrupted every time he tried) to claim that the ‘commonwealth status’ (technically speaking, there is no such thing as a commonwealth status, since commonwealth refers to the body politic, but that’s a discussion for another day) was not the same as a territorial status and therefore it couldn’t be excluded and was not rejected. Who says there can’t be bipartisan agreement in Washington? The argument failed miserably, and was contradicted by the governor himself both in previous statements, as well as in the written remarks he submitted where it is stipulated on several occasions that Puerto Rico remains under the territorial clause of the US Constitution.
2. No one can explain what the enhanced commonwealth is
Except perhaps for Ruben Berrios’ explanation, there was no clear explanation of what an enhanced commonwealth would imply for PR – US relations, since after being asked on two separate instances by Senators Murkowski and Heinrich, Garcia Padilla failed to provide a satisfactory explanation. On the first instance, he cited legal theory from jurists and court decisions seemingly being misrepresented, leaving Murkowski unsatisfied and forcing her to move on, and on the second, he tried to again make a distinction between the commonwealth and the territorial status (see #1), again frustrating the senator asking the question, and forcing Heinrich to move on.
3. The enhanced commonwealth is unconstitutional and will not be accepted in Congress
Sen Murkowski sees Constitutional probs w "Enhanced Commonwealth" http://t.co/Jw4zIf4PFz
— Puerto Rico Report (@PRicoReport) August 1, 2013
Once again, in spite of Garcia Padilla’s efforts to claim otherwise in his written statements, the basic premise of an enhance commonwealth, that the US and Puerto Rico would enter into a mutual agreement that cannot be altered except by mutual consent, is the first constitutional obstacle. One Congress simply cannot bind another, especially when dealing with an entity that is not even a sovereign country. Even if it passed constitutional muster, such a proposal would be dead on arrival in Congress.
4. Either Garcia Padilla is not good at lobbying, or they were defending the indefensible
Gobernador @agarciapadilla en reunión ayer con la Senadora Lisa Murkowski en la capital federal. pic.twitter.com/I3gRSxr5Nj
— La Fortaleza (@fortalezapr) August 1, 2013
Before the hearing occurred, Garcia Padilla arrived a day earlier to Washington, DC and boasted about meeting with several senators, two of which are part of the Committee on Energy & Natural Resources: Murskowski and Joe Manchin (D-WV). This did not stop Murkowski from grilling the governor on the meaning of the enhanced commonwealth (see #2), or affect the view of the present senators that the current territorial status was rejected. They did manage to get Manchin to send a letter blasting the plebiscite results, but that didn’t affect how the hearing proceeded, since Manchin was absent. Whether this is a testament of the governor’s and his much maligned DC team‘s lobbying ability, or absurdity of their position is up for debate. Either way, yesterday was not their day.
5. The Popular Democratic Party is not unified on the status issue
Populares soberanistas promueven la Asamblea Constitucional – El Nuevo Día http://t.co/Sxz6ehUN1X via @elnuevodia
— Aníbal Acevedo Vilá (@anibalacevedo) August 1, 2013
Before the hearing was over, there was trouble sowing among the ranks of the PDP. It seems that the sovereign wing of the party is discontent with the party leadership and their unwillingness to address the status issue, which prompted key lawmakers and party figures, like the capital mayor Carmen Yulin, to send a statement separate from that of their party leader, which for all purposes contradicted the position of Garcia Padilla. This prompted the governor’s “plumitas” (little feathers) comment after the hearing, which leads us to the next point.
6. There is trouble in the ranks of the PDP
The comments of Governor Garcia Padilla referring to those in his party denominated as “soberanistas”, meaning those who favor sovereignty for Puerto Rico (although to what extent and what exactly that means is yet to be seen), as not a wing in his party but more like little feathers, naturally cause a furor among several officials. For a party leaders to so brazenly diminish and underestimate what some consider to be a growing faction of his party, while not unprecedented (former PDP governor Rafael Hernandez Colon had referred to the same group as “plumitas liberales” or liberal little feathers), is still a sign of how fractious the coalition that elected the PDP to power is. As further proof is the constant barrage of attacks from Garcia Padilla’s running mate, Rafael Cox Alomar who lost the race for Resident Commissioner against the New Progressive Party’s Pedro Pierluisi. Keep watch on how the aftermath of the comments unfolds, since it could greatly affect the party’s rhetoric and actions when it comes to the status issue.
7. Garcia Padilla needs better preparation
Una de las más vistas: AGP: Minuto y medio no es suficiente para definir el "ELA mejorado" http://t.co/HQXoXdwWe5 http://t.co/CjwSOBI3R8
— NotiCel (@noticel) August 2, 2013
For Garcia Padilla to be explicitly asked to define the enhanced commonwealth and be unable to is an utter embarrassment, even for a politician notorious for not answering and dodging straightforward questions on both Spanish and English. Whether the cringe-inducing display was due to his lack of English skills, or to an inability to explain the proposal in a concise clear way, it warrants a review of the governor’s preparation by his advisers, especially when the governor himself claims the proposal has been in the works for decades. Shouldn’t it be time they know how to explain it?
8. The White House agrees the territorial status was rejected
Why Obama administration didn't send a representative to today's hearing: http://t.co/0Q9zGecK7i
— Puerto Rico Report (@PRicoReport) August 1, 2013
The White House snubbed the committee, led by a member of its own party, and The Puerto Rico Report has an interesting and convincing explanation as to why that was. For however much debate there is about the second question of the 2012 plebiscite and the results it yielded, there is no contest in Washington as to what the results of the first question meant.
9. The local pundits still don’t know how Congress works
Me pregunto cuánto le costó al PNP lograr q esos 3 senadores fueran a la vista con puntos q parecían a Ángel… http://t.co/sqd50KoS1P
— Jay Fonseca (@jayfonsecapr) August 2, 2013
For all their talk, local talking heads like Jay Fonseca still seem struggle with how Congress works. This is not his fault since local media barely covers national issues and only one of the main newspapers had a dedicated Washington correspondent. However, it is bizarre to see someone suggest that Andres Lopez, a prominent democrat with close ties to the White House can influence Lisa Murkowski; the Senator might have an independent streak, but the suggestion is still outrageous.
10. As far as the narrative goes, the territorial status has its days numbered, and the PDP is changing tunes
Puerto Rican governor's fight against statehood falls on deaf ears in Congress http://t.co/LTk3knVE9i by @JPecquetTheHill
— The Hill (@thehill) August 1, 2013
Ruben Berrios’ skepticism aside, every report for national outlets on the hearing has the same conclusion: Congress isn’t buying that Puerto Rican support the current territorial status any longer. Whether it was The Hill, Fusion or The Tribune, all articles highlight the struggle of the governor against statehood, and his failure to make the narrative shift his way.
That said, it did not go without notice that contrary to previous years, when the PDP has made every effort to distinguish itself from pro-independence forces, there is a shift in rhetoric. In previous years the populares often cited their commitment to a permanent union with the US. These days, it’s phrase of choice is one of permanent relationship, a semantic change with significant consequences, that will most likely come back to haunt the party and the governor.
.@jayfonsecapr Es la segunda ocasión que la usa; la estrenó el 25 de julio. El PPD abandonó la "unión permanente": pic.twitter.com/6LL3PPggpx
— Alerta Progresista (@aprogresista) August 1, 2013
Whatever comes out of the hearing if anything, the effects will still reverberate at the very least at the local level. Without knowing, Senators Wyden, Murkowski and Heinrich have significantly affected Puerto Rican politics, unleashing a civil war in the PDP, and changing the locals’ perspective of Congress’ view toward the territory of 3.6 million Americans and its political status with the United States. So far, it seems to have helped Pierluisi ger HR 2000 to have 115 cosponsors, 10 of which signed on yesterday after the hearing.
HR2000 llegó hoy a los 115 co-auspiciadores, el mismo día en q se efectuó la vista en el Comité de Energía y Recursos Naturales del Senado.
— Pedro Pierluisi (@pedropierluisi) August 1, 2013