A new statehood bill for Puerto Rico has been introduced. “Is it for real this time?” a commenter asked us at our Facebook page.
That’s a fair question.
However, it has more to do with bills than with Puerto Rico. Only about 4% of the bills introduced in Congress actually become laws.
There have been 100 status bills for Puerto Rico, according to a Johnson City Press editorial. We haven’t found that many, but there have been quite a few:
These bills have had as many as 181 cosponsors. They have been discussed in committees. They’ve had roll call votes. But none of them have become law. Does that mean that another statehood bill will fail? No. Many other territories have had multiple statehood bills. They are states now.
How does a bill become a law?
Introducing a bill is just the first step. Only a Member of Congress can introduce a bill. Puerto Rico has one Member of Congress, the Resident Commissioner. She introduced the new statehood bill, HR 4901, earlier this month. She can’t vote on bills, but she can introduce them.
Other Members of Congress have introduced bills for Puerto Rico. Rep. Don Young of Alaska, for example, has introduced status bills for Puerto Rico. Any congressperson can do this. Rep. Young said in his 1997 bill, “Full self-government for Puerto Rico is attainable only through establishment of a political status which is based on either separate Puerto Rican sovereignty and nationality or full and equal United States nationality and citizenship through membership in the Union and under which Puerto Rico is no longer an unincorporated territory subject to the plenary authority of Congress arising from the Territorial Clause.” This is still true today.
Often, a bill will gather co-sponsors. These are other members of Congress who support a bill. They might be listed as cosponsors when the bill is first filed, or they may add their names later. Once the new statehood bill is introduced, all voters can contact their congressional representatives and ask them to support the bill. This is our opportunity as voters to make sure that our reps know how we stand on the issues they’ll vote on. That’s our voice.
The next step is moving the bill to committee. Not all bills go to a committee. The independence bill introduced by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, for example, was introduced but was never sent on to a committee. In general, however, a bill is sent to the most relevant committee in the House so that the people who know the most about the issue can discuss it in detail. They may hold hearings, call expert witnesses, mark up (make changes to) the bill, or send it to a subcommittee for more study.
If the committee doesn’t take action, the bill is said to have “died in committee.” If the committee sends the bill back to the whole Congress, there will be reports and additional information to help Congress understand the issues.
Back to Congress
When the bill returns to the floor of Congress, there will usually be debate about the bill. Members of Congress can say why they are in favor of or against a bill. They can also offer amendments — changes to the bill. For example, Rep. Nydia Velazquez offered two changes to HR 2499. First, she wanted to allow people of Puerto Rican descent living in the States to vote on the status of Puerto Rico. Second, she wanted to wait for Puerto Rico to ask for a change, rather than having Congress decide to call for a referendum. Both of these amendments were voted on, and both failed.
Once the debate is finished, Congress must make sure that they have 218 members in the room. That’s a quorum: the number of members required to call a vote. If there are too few members on the floor, Congress takes some time to round people up and get the quorum. Then the members who are present vote on the bill.
If the bill passes in the House, it must go to the Senate. If the bill passes in both the House and the Senate, the President must sign the bill before it becomes a law.
Wait — there’s more
Sometimes the House and the Senate come up with different bills on the same subject. When this happens, a Conference Committee is set up to work out the differences and come up with a bill that everyone can agree with.
Then the bill goes to the President of the United States for a signature. If the president won’t sign — and that happened with some statehood bills in the 1800s — then there are some other possibilities. If the president vetoes the bill (says no), it goes back to Congress. The president’s reasons for the veto are discussed, and Congress can accept or vote to override the veto. If the President doesn’t veto or sign within 10 days and Congress is still in session, the bill becomes a law anyway.
If Congress is not in session 10 days after the bill is sent to the president, it doesn’t become a law. That’s called a “pocket veto” — the president just kept the bill in his or her pocket till it was too late.
That’s a law
It’s a long and complicated process. If a bill is introduced in one session of Congress and doesn’t become a law in that year, the whole process has to start over. Utah had eight statehood bills before they succeeded in getting one passed. Colorado had six statehood bills that failed, plus two presidential vetoes, before becoming a state. Both Colorado and Utah — and many more territories that had to try many times before gaining admission — are states today.
All of the territories that asked for statehood in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries are states today. Puerto Rico is closer than ever to statehood now. It is time for statehood.
Tell your Congressional reps that it is time for Puerto Rico to become a state. Use the Shout Out widget on the right, tweet to your rep, or use our Contact Your Legislators page. You do not have to know your representative’s name to use this tool.
The time is now. Your voice matters.