HR 2757, the Puerto Rico Status Act, is a bill currently being considered in the House of Representatives. It calls for Puerto Rico to have one more plebiscite, this time with federal support and a commitment from Congress to take action on the results. The referendum would give the voters of Puerto Rico a choice among three non-territorial options for the political status of Puerto Rico:
- free association
There are many issues to be discussed regarding this bill, but it does provide a choice of permanent status options for the territory of Puerto Rico. After more than 125 years as a U.S. territory, it is high time.
The Senate companion bill
We have been expecting a companion bill to be presented in the Senate. Instead, Senator Roger Wicker has introduced a different bill, also called the Puerto Rico Status Act. This bill is similar to HR2757, but it has an important difference. The options it presents are these:
- free association
- commonwealth status
What is commonwealth status? At some points in the discussion of the bill, it seems as though Wicker recognizes that this term refers to continued territory status. “Pending legislative proposals from my colleagues do not acknowledge the fact that many Puerto Ricans prefer to maintain their current status,” Wicker says at his website. He goes on to say that his bill “would authorize a binding plebiscite vote on four options: independence for Puerto Rico, sovereignty in free association with the United States, statehood, or retaining the status of Puerto Rico as a Commonwealth.”
This suggests that Wicker knows that “commonwealth” just means continuing as a territory, under the Territory Clause of the Constitution.
However, his bill requires, if commonwealth is the winning option, a “TRANSITION AND IMPLEMENTATION OF COMMONWEALTH STATUS,” which implies that this would be a change.
The definition of “commonwealth”
Wicker’s bill explains the commonwealth option in this way:
‘‘(A) A vote for Commonwealth-Estado Libre Asociado shall be a mandate to empowerment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in accordance with the principles and parameters described in subparagraphs (B) through (E).
‘‘(B) The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico shall be united to the United States by a formal compact of political autonomy. The compact shall have the character of a permanent relationship and shall establish, as public policy of the United States, that any modification to the relationship shall be approved by the people of Puerto Rico by referendum.
‘‘(C) United States citizenship of individuals born in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico shall be guaranteed and protected as provided in the United States Constitution. The application, protections, and rights associated with citizenship shall be equal to the protections and rights of citizens born in the States of the United States of America.
‘‘(D) Federal laws and programs shall apply to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in accordance with the provisions of the autonomous compact. However, if the government of Puerto Rico determines that the enactment of a Federal law or a specific provision of a statute or regulation of the United States modifies or affects the powers granted to the people of Puerto Rico with respect to self-government, fiscal autonomy, or cultural identity, the government of Puerto Rico may request an exemption from the application of the statute or regulation. The compact shall include an expedited mediation mechanism to address such claims.
‘‘(E) The compact shall replace the corresponding provisions of the Act of July 3, 1950 (commonly known as the ‘Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950’) (64 Stat. 319, chapter 446), regarding the application of certain Federal laws that, due to the scope of the Federal laws, could unilaterally modify the nature of the political autonomy relationship.’’.
Enhanced commonwealth again
The interesting thing about this is that the phrasing is from Jose Luis Dalmau’s proposal.
Here is the proposal, as reported in the San Juan Star:
“The proposal for the development of the Commonwealth proposed by Dalmau notes that a vote for the commonwealth option is a mandate to empower the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico under certain principles and parameters that define the nature of the political relationship with the United States.
“The new commonwealth of Puerto Rico will be united to the United States through a formal pact of political autonomy. The pact will have the character of a permanent relationship, and any modification to the terms of the political relationship between both peoples must be approved by the people of Puerto Rico using a referendum.
“Under the new pact, the US citizenship of persons born in Puerto Rico will be guaranteed and protected as established in the Constitution of the United States. The application, protections, and rights associated with said citizenship will equal those of citizens born in the states.
“Federal laws and programs will be enforced in Puerto Rico with the provisions of the autonomy pact. However, in the event that the government of Puerto Rico understands that the promulgation of a federal law or specific provisions of a statute or regulation of the United States government, modifies or affects the powers granted to the people of Puerto Rico with respect to their self-government, fiscal autonomy or cultural identity, the government of Puerto Rico may claim – through a Joint Resolution, approved by the Legislative Assembly and signed by the Governor – the exemption from the application of said laws or regulations.
“The agreement will include an expedited mediation mechanism to address such claims. The mechanism shall supersede the corresponding provisions of the Federal Relations Act ofJuly 3, 1950 regarding the application of certain federal laws that, due to their scope, could unilaterally modify the island’s political autonomy.”
Enhanced commonwealth is unconstitutional
The idea is that Puerto Ricans should have guaranteed citizenship and the full protection of the Constitution, as do people born in states, that Puerto Rico can reject federal laws, and that such agreements cannot be revoked except by mutual consent. These provisions have all been rejected by the federal government because they are not possible under the U.S. Constitution.
Is Wicker aware that this is not, as he puts it, ” retaining the status of Puerto Rico”? This enhanced commonwealth is quite different from the current territorial status, and it has been rejected and discredited by all three branches of the federal government. Is Wicker’s goal, then, that Puerto Rico should continue as a territory without the illusory “compact” in the bill? The bill gives a Bilateral Negotiating Commission 180 days to negotiate such a compact if commonwealth wins. If the negotiation is unsuccessful, according to the bill, the Commission will try again. This could go on for years.
Commonwealth, with definitions like this, has won plebiscites in the past. Congress has said, in essence, “Oh, well, there’s no way we can give them what they want.” Puerto Rico has continued as an unincorporated territory.
Under Senator Wicker’s bill, history could repeat itself. Contact your representatives and make sure they understand that Puerto Rico needs a choice of options that Congress will support after the vote.