Bipartisan Strategy For Reinventing Puerto Rico

Restoring Pre-Hurricane Conditions Cheats Puerto Rico and U.S. Taxpayers

Before two hurricanes slammed into Puerto Rico in 2017, the failed “commonwealth” regime of local territorial government had $75 billion in government red ink and another $50 billion in unfunded pension obligations.

In 2016 Congress created a territorial financial control board with the power to suspend the local territorial constitution as determined necessary to manage the bankruptcy of local government.

The estimated $100 billion cost of recovery from Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria has made the federal control board’s already tenuous and uncertain plans to restore fiscal solvency impossible to implement based on pre-hurricane assumptions and expectations.

Recreating pre-hurricane political and social conditions in America’s last large and populous territory will merely set the stage for perpetual dependency and ever-increasing federal subsidies for an economically defeated and hopeless subclass with less than equal citizenship.

Without a transition to either statehood or nationhood Puerto Rico will become a failed feudal society under the American flag. If Puerto Rico is not going to be reinvented under a new political status that makes social and economic stability and realization of the island’s potential for economic development possible, the U.S. might as well give Puerto Rico a $100 billion block grant for imposed transition to separate sovereignty, nationality and citizenship.

While transition to statehood with equal rights under the U.S. Constitution would require approval by Congress and ratification by the U.S. citizens of the territory, the U.S. has an unconditional right under international law and the U.S. Constitution unilaterally to declare that Puerto Rico will become an independent nation on a date certain.

In that independence scenario the Congress would simply provide for phase out of all vestiges of U.S. sovereignty, nationality and citizenship arising from birth in Puerto Rico under federal territorial statutes during U.S. rule. Those who became U.S. citizens in the territory could move to the U.S. or stay and become citizens of the Republic of Puerto Rico, but could not pass U.S. citizenship to children born in the new nation.

It should be obvious that it would be fiscally irrational for Congress to expend tens of billions of dollars in Puerto Rico without declaring a national policy on whether Puerto Rico will be offered statehood or nationhood in the future. Congress has no choice but to spend billions now under any disaster relief law, but it is doing so irresponsibly if it does not also define a future status policy goal to inform democratic self-determination by residents of the island territory.

National Disaster Recovery Measures Necessary First Step – Reinventing Puerto Rico Requires Inclusion Under “National Infrastructure Initiative”

News reports indicate that national disaster recovery funding for fires and hurricanes in 2017 could reach historic levels exceeding $200 billion.  Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress who have visited the island territory agree Puerto Rico has the greatest and most urgent need for disaster recovery funding, to deal with extreme suffering for a greater number of federal taxpaying U.S citizens most adversely affected by disasters of 2017.

However, unlike Florida, Texas and California, Puerto Rico is the only U.S. jurisdiction facing current legally declared bankruptcy and some signs of early onset of socioeconomic collapse.

Puerto Rico also is the only disaster-impacted tax-paying U.S. citizen body politic governed under federal territorial law without voting representation in Congress, and insolvent due to territorial fiscal policies authorized but not monitored by Congress for decades.

That means only a bipartisan agreement also accepted by the Congressional delegations from Texas, California and Florida that will ensure U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico (who contrary to popular myth also pay federal taxes) get federal disaster recovery assistance based on equal criteria matching resources that are applied in those three states.

Even if Puerto Rico gets necessary equal recovery assistance, Congress must recognize that pre-hurricane political and economic conditions in Puerto Rico created latent hazards arising from a lack of hardened infrastructure that exists in those three states.

That is because under the “commonwealth” regime for territorial government Puerto Rico has not been treated like a state for purposes of public works and federal contributions to state-like standards for inclusion in the national infrastructure and public utilities grid.

Recovery measures that return Puerto Rico to those pre-hurricane conditions will not be adequate to prevent Puerto Rico from becoming a failed dependency of the U.S. indefinitely if not in perpetuity. Puerto Rico must instead be reinvented as a state or a nation.

Congress sooner or later will be compelled to declare as it has in the past for other territories a national policy on Puerto Rico’s future political status. Consistent with that declaration it is in the national interest to include Puerto Rico in public works project measures under any bipartisan national infrastructure initiative.

Because Puerto Rico does not have constitutionally meaningful voting representation in Congress, one non-voting member of the U.S. House Representatives is the only voice in Congress for 3.5 million federal tax paying U.S. citizens in the territory. Every other voting member of the House from a state presents around 500,000 citizens, six times less than the nonvoting member from Puerto Rico.

That undemocratic under-representation explains why Congress failed to apply state-like standards for infrastructure in Puerto Rico.  Yet, Congress treated Puerto Rico like a state when it comes to federal payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare in the territory.  Residents of Puerto Rico also pay federal income tax on earnings in the states or overseas, and a substitute federal income tax on local earnings to pay the cost of the “commonwealth” territorial regime of local government that is a surrogate agency of Congress.

While its infrastructure has been neglected by Congress and Puerto Rico has treated “commonwealth” as a federal territorial reservation status, in the same period Puerto Rico has been treated like a state under federal military service laws. That has been true both under federal selective service registration laws and military conscription laws.  Currently, residents of Puerto Rico continue to volunteer and serve in the military at rates higher than all but a few states.

Origins of Pre-Hurricane Neo-Feudalism Syndrome

In the 1960’s the U.S. Congress adopted a local home rule policy allowing budgetary “autonomy” without accountability. President Kennedy ended Department of Interior oversight of financial practices in Puerto Rico, but all U.S. territories remained under Department of Interior fiscal oversight.  Lack of consistent Congressional oversight made creeping fiscal risk taking and eventual economic crisis inevitable. Congress blatantly abdicated its constitutional duty to define and manage viable federal relations and political status arrangements for all U.S. territories.

A decade ago massive U.S. military base closings without planned transition or economic adjustment measures took $300 million out of the annual local economy and killed 6,000 stable, high paying jobs with good benefits at state-like levels. That followed Clinton Administration elimination of federal experiments in command economics, repealing federal measures for “stimulus” of Puerto Rico’s local productivity through tax shelters abused by mainland companies.

Congress can and does change economic and political conditions in territories at its discretion, without constitutional restraints on federal power existing for either states of the union or foreign nations.  The so-called “autonomy” experiment known as “commonwealth” for Puerto Rico deviated from 175 years of constitutional precedent applying constitutional protections in U.S. citizens populated territories. That has created conditions of federal territorial neo-feudalism practiced in Puerto Rico even after Congress granted U.S. citizenship in 1917.

As a result, federal law has treated Puerto Rico like a state, a foreign nation, and a colony at the whim of Congress, without coherent purpose for 118 years. That is why failed federal experiments in autonomy” without accountability caused the local economy to contract sharply a decade ago.

Facing revenue shortfalls and demands of 3.5 millions U.S. residents for a “state like” standard of living, the local “commonwealth” regime responded by making promises of government managed economic benefits it could not keep – at least not without borrowing more money than it could afford to pay back!

Only Bipartisan Leadership Forging National Will Can Prevent Permanent Neo-Feudalism Under U.S. Flag

Clearly, restoring electricity and basic services without upgrading and hardening public utility infrastructure to state like standards leaves Puerto Rico twisting in the wind and highly vulnerable. Similarly, restoring local territorial autonomy without upgrading political infrastructure to statehood or nationhood standards will deepen social dystopia and perpetuate chronic culturally debilitating dependency on federal subsidization.

There are historically profound facts that must be addressed and questions that must be answered beginning in 2018 that will determine more than just the fate of Puerto Rico. What happens in Puerto Rico will define the future nature of the federal union and meaning of U.S. sovereignty, nationality and citizenship under the U.S. flag.

PR51St has already explained that reinventing Puerto Rico is a much greater national challenge than even the Marshall Plan after WWII.  Still, there are lessons Congress could learn from the Marshall Plan as it addresses the national purpose served by reinventing Puerto Rico.

Not since the unification of the states after the Revolutionary War, Reconstruction after the Civil War, and recovery from the Great Depression has our nation faced such a definitive test of the principle that Americans sink or swim together based on equal rights and duties of citizenship under the Constitution.

Puerto Rico does not just need to be rebuilt physically, it needs to be reinvented politically, economically, socially and constitutionally. Hurricane Maria has ended the political status debate and made it undeniable that only statehood or nationhood are viable future models for democratic self-government and economic survival.

Republicans and Democrats agree national conscience demands unprecedented political and economic measures. Does national will and resolve equal national obligations to govern U.S. citizens based on the Constitution? That is, after all, an obligation that runs not just to Puerto Rico but to the nation.

In that context, some regard it as brash that Puerto Rico Governor Rossello has vowed to rally 5 million U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico living in the states to help him defeat Republican candidates for Congress who voted for the Trump tax reform bill. If the Trump national infrastructure bill does not pass in 2018 and the Democrats get control of Congress, the Governor’s tactics asking residents of states to vote to defeat Republicans might prove effective, at least in the short term.

But long term it is possible a Republican majority will control Congress.  Perhaps that is why as a leader of the bipartisan alliance of Republicans and Democrats in the pro-statehood party in Puerto Rico the Governor seems to be re-purposing the mobilization of ethnic Puerto Ricans in the states to support statehood as a bipartisan cause.

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