Consensus in the US House: Puerto Rico Status Act announced
In a press conference led by Representative Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland, flanked by Representative Nydia Velazquez of New York (D), Raul Grijalva (D) of Arizona, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) of New York, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (NPP, R) of Puerto Rico, and Governor Pedro Pierluisi (NPP, D) of Puerto Rico, the group announced the Puerto Rico Status Act, a bill offering three non-territorial status options to the territory in a plebiscite to happen November 5, 2023. The three options in the draft discussion bill are: statehood, independence as a freely associated state in a treaty with the United States, and total independence without any treaty with the US.
The announcement of the consensus comes on the heels of rumors that an agreement had been reached after months of acrimony and intransigence that seemed to have dealth a fatal blow to the hopes of any progress on the issue. Reporting from El Nuevo Dia and Latino Rebels in recent weeks however, signalled renewed hopes for a compromise bill, one that if approved would be the first to be a binding commitment from the US Congress to resolve the status of Puerto Rico. The draft as written is self-executable, and authorizes the President of the United States or the Legislature of Puerto Rico to begin implementing the result, for statehood and independence in either form respectively.
In addition to the vote, the bill provides for an educational campaign to be financed and overseen by the US federal government, as well as for the transitional mechanisms for each of the three options offered in the plebiscite. PROMESA is also mentioned, in that upon the implementation of any of the three status option, the law would cease to apply, and the Oversight Board shall no longer exist. There is also a provision calling for a runoff plebiscite for the top two options in votes should no option receive an outright majority in the November 5, 2023 vote. Which measures such as these the authors seem eager to close any possible loophole that could further delay the resolution of this issue.
In fact, they seem to address previous controversies involving status votes in Puerto Rico that have derailed discussions with provisions that define when ballots are to be counted as happened with the 2012 plebiscite and recently with the 2020 vote, when statehood opponents have counted blank ballots to alter the final results—in this vote, those ballots would not be counted.
In its very premise, the bill comes from the understanding that Puerto Rico’s status is a territorial one, with sovereignty lying in the US Congress, a position held by all three branches of the US government, and by officials from both the Democratic and Republican parties. As such, reactions to the bill’s unveiling predictably fell along the lines of those advocating for the decolonization of Puerto Rico, and those still in denial that the status quo is a colonial one, namely the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico.
Representative Hoyer called the bill historic, while Governor Pierluisi touted that with the bill, “Puerto Rico would no longer be a colony.” Representative Velazquez, originally a sponsor of the bill that called instead for a constitutional assembly to address the issue said that “this proposal will give the people of Puerto Rico the ability to decide their political future,” while Representative Ocasio Cortez joined in stating that “we are here to finally end second-class citizenship of Puerto Ricans in the United States.”
Chairman of the US House Committee on Natural Resources, which would have initial jurisdiction over the bill, Raul Grijalva, announced the committee would hold hearings in Puerto Rico to directly hear from residents of the territory on the matter.
Political groups from across the spectrum also chimed in, with the Puerto Rico Statehood Council calling the bill a “historic bipartisan agreement” and Power 4 Puerto Rico issuing a list of demands for what the legislation should include in their view, this after supporting Velazquez’ HR 2070 constitutional assembly bill.
On the other hand, as expected, leaders of the status quo-supporting Popular Democratic Party came out aggressively opposing the bill. Puerto Rico Senate President and PDP President Jose Luis Dalmau Senador angrily decried the bill saying it “excludes those who think differently. It disrespects Puerto Ricans.” His counterpart in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives Rafael Hernandez similarly stated that they “reject with all our might the exclusion of the territorial status.”
A political realignment
The idea of having Nydia Velazquez on stage with Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon announcing a joint status bill woud have been unthinkable even just a few months ago, signifying a shift in Congress when it comes to the issue. Velazquez has usually been an opponent of any measure in Congress she perceived as unduly favoring statehood, even those that called for an outright yes or no vote on statehood. Her efforts have usually put her in the good graces of the PDP, but today’s events change that.
The PDP has been losing influence in Congress, as evidenced by the announcement due likely to several factors, including their electoral performance for the nonvoting seat Puerto Rico has in Congress. The party has been unable to win a resident commissioner election in 22 years. That said, today’s outcome could arguably have been expected regardless of the PDP’s influence. With both Republican and Democratic administrations, the Supreme Court in cases like Sanchez Valle, and both Republican and Democratic-led committees in both houses of Congress agreeing that Puerto Rico has a territorial status, and that the only non-territorial status options available were statehood and independence, be it in its total form or in free association, the writing was in the wall.
The path forward
In the press conference for the bill the bill’s path forward and its prospects were raised. Grijalva’s intentions to hold hearings on the bill in Puerto Rico could present a delay, this when Congress is preparing for the 2022 midterm elections, where Republicans have a significant change of taking over one or both houses. This on top of the fact of the US Senate’s seeming disinterest on the matter, best exemplified by Senator Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia’s statements indicating the would not address the issue until the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary (which he chairs) acts on the matter and on his incorrect belief that admitting Puerto Rico as a state would require a constitutional amendment.
Grijalva’s advice on the question: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”