The United States House Natural Resources Committee advanced the Puerto Rico Status Act (PRSA) to the floor of the House, despite a barrage of amendments and intense debate. The bill will now face a vote in the House, although success is in jeopardy after key Democrats withdrew support.
The PRSA combines two bills, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act and Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act. Representative Darren Soto (D) of Florida and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (NPP, R) of Puerto Rico introduced the Statehood Admission Act. Representatives Nydia Velázquez (D) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) of New York sponsored the Self-Determination Act. The combined bill establishes a binding plebiscite that gives Puerto Ricans the option of statehood, independence, or free association and would force Congress to act on the plebiscite, changing Puerto Rico’s status.
The committee incorporated revisions from public comments and input after they visited Puerto Rico. Settling on the final wording, the committee made three clarifications: “That approval of a political status option must be by more than 50 percent of the valid votes cast…that if voters choose Sovereignty in Free Association with the United States, during the implementation of the first Articles of Free Association, an individual born in Puerto Rico to two parents who are citizens of the US shall be a US citizen at birth…and that the transition and implementation of any non-territory status option requires conforming amendments to existing federal law.” The bill also “includes new ballot information explaining the US federal tax law under the three non-territory status options on the ballot for individuals and business in Puerto Rico.”
During the committee’s hearing, Republican representatives introduced numerous amendments, none of which passed. The amendments largely would ensure American interests, but also would undermine the option to change status. Representative Tom McClintock (R) of California recommended adding the option of retaining the current status as a territory along with a choice of “none of the above.” McClintock also wanted to change the minimum threshold of approval from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority in the plebiscite. In the ratification process, McClintock recommended requiring two-thirds approval of the result from both houses of Congress. Besides the conditions of the plebiscite, McClintock suggested an English language requirement for official government business and school instruction. Representative Bruce Westerman (R) of Arkansas introduced another amendment that would delay the change in status until all conditions in the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act were met. Similarly, Representative Jody Hice (R) of Georgia recommended delaying the change in status until Puerto Rico repaid its debt. Hice also introduced amendments to retain Department of Defense assets, including army bases and coast guard stations, and a ban that would prevent Puerto Rico from accepting Chinese funds. None of the amendments passed, with various Republican representatives joining the Democrats on the committee.
The bill unsurprisingly passed the committee 25-20, though Representatives Jesús García (D) of Illinois and Rashida Tlaib (D) of Michigan notably voted against the bill. Tlaib defended her vote later, explaining she voted against the bill to support Puerto Ricans in her district. García voted against the bill because he felt the drafting process lacked transparency, a claim backed by certain advocate groups. Key negotiator Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) of New York also reportedly believes the drafting process lacked transparency, even removing her name from the bill before it was referred to the committee. Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (NPP, R) was the only Republican voting in support of the bill. Other Republican committee members voted against the bill, citing concerns over the negotiation process and the fast-tracking of the bill.
Committee chair Raúl Grijalva responded to the supposed lack of transparency, noting the committee published a version of the bill in Spanish. Grijalva rejected the proposal of advocates and other Congressmembers to conduct hearings in Washington, DC, explaining, “We’ve been to Puerto Rico and heard from the people there. Who in Puerto Rico have we not heard from yet?”
The defection of important Democrats, including Ocasio-Cortez, threatens both the likelihood of the vote and the chances of the bill passing the House. House leadership is monitoring support and still plans to vote on the bill later this month, though it is increasingly likely the bill will need support from Republicans to pass.