The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico

The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status was established in 2000 by then-President Bill Clinton. Reports from the task force were published in 2005, 2007, and 2011. The Task Force was reconvened by Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama, but not by Donald Trump.

President Biden has reestablished the Task Force, and the group has held one meeting.

Past Task Forces produced reports in 2005, 2007, and 2011. Each of the reports included the question of political status for Puerto Rico.

The 2005 report

The 2005 report began with these words:

The mission of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status (Task Force) is to provide options for Puerto Rico’s future status and rela- tionship with the Government of the United States of America. It has approached this mission without prejudice towards a status option and has developed options that are compatible with the Constitution and basic laws and policies of the United States.

The Task Force has developed these options after listening to and considering the views of individuals, elected officials, and other repre- sentatives of the people of Puerto Rico to ensure that views and positions have been objectively considered irrespective of affiliation or ideology.

The 2005 report says, as every branch of the federal government has said for the past 70 years or so, that there are only two non-territorial options:

Although the current territorial status may continue so long as Congress desires, there are only two non-territorial options recognized by the U.S. Constitution that establish a permanent status between the people of Puerto Rico and the Government of the United States.

  • One is statehood. Under this option, Puerto Rico would become the 51st State with standing equal to the other 50 States.
  • The other is independence. Under this option, Puerto Rico would become a separate, independent sovereign nation.

The report specifically discussed the “new commonwealth” proposal, saying, “Some have proposed a “New Commonwealth” status. Under this proposal, the island would become an autonomous, non-territorial, non-State entity in permanent union with the United States under a covenant that could not be altered without the ‘mutual consent’ of Puerto Rico and the federal Government. The U.S. Constitution, however, does not allow for such an arrangement.”

The authors also clarified the nature of free association, which some proponents are currently substituting for “enhanced commonwealth.”

Among the constitutionally available options, freely associated status may come closest to providing for the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States that advocates for “New Commonwealth” status appear to desire. But it would need to be made clear to the people of Puerto Rico that freely associated status is a form of independence from the United States and cannot (absent an amendment of the U.S. Constitution) be made immune from the possibility of unilateral termination by the United States.

Read the 2005 report.

The 2007 report

The 2007 report summarized the points made in 2005, including the wording quoted above. It goes on to describe new developments, including a bill introduced by Rep. Nydia Velazquez, and to discuss possible processes to establish a permanent political status for Puerto Rico.

“H.R. 1230 (sponsored by Representative Velázquez),” it explains, “would support the convening of a constitutional convention in Puerto Rico, the purpose of which would be to develop a proposal for the future status of the island to be voted upon by the Puerto Rican people.”

This is of course an earlier version of HR 2070, a proposal introduced several times by Rep. Velazquez.

The report concludes:

[A]s detailed earlier and in the 2005 Report, the Task Force concludes that there are only three options available under the U.S. constitution for the future status of Puerto Rico:

  • Continue as a territory. The current status of Puerto Rico as a common­ wealth may continue indefinitely but remains subject to future modification by congress.
  • Statehood. Under this option, Puerto Rico would become the 51st State with standing equal to the other 50 States.
  • Independence. Under this option, Puerto Rico would become a sovereign nation, independent from the united States.

Read the 2007 report.

The 2011 report

President Obama wrote in the introduction to this report, “I am firmly committed to the principle that the question of political status is a matter of self-determination for the people of Puerto Rico.”

The task force made specific recommendations about the status of Puerto Rico.
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The Task Force recommends that all relevant parties—the President, Congress, and the leadership and people of Puerto Rico—work to ensure that Puerto Ricans are able to express their will about status options and have that will acted upon by the end of 2012 or soon thereafter.

Recommendations 2 through 6 made specific suggestions about how the plebiscite should be conducted. For example, it was suggested that only residents of Puerto Rico should vote on the question, since living on the island showed a commitment to the future of Puerto Rico. It was also suggested that there be two plebiscites: one asking whether Puerto Rico wanted to continue as a territory, and if voters said they did not, a second vote on the non-territorial status options.

Some of the recommendations were followed in the 2012 vote, and some were not. While the 2012 vote clearly favored Statehood, controversy about the results have made the final recommendation important for us now.

If efforts on the Island do not provide a clear result in the short term, the President should support, and Congress should enact, self-executing legislation that specifies in advance for the people of Puerto Rico a set of acceptable status options that the United States is politically committed to fulfilling.

The 2011 report listed statehood, independence, commonwealth, and free association as status options.

Free Association was defined in this way:

Free Association is a type of independence. A compact of Free Association would establish a mutual agreement that would recognize that the United States and Puerto Rico are closely linked in specific ways as detailed in the compact. Compacts of this sort are based on the national sovereignty of each country, and either nation can unilaterally terminate the association.

Free Association would provide for an independent Puerto Rico with a close relationship to the United States,

Commonwealth was discussed at some length, with the conclusion that “Under the Commonwealth option, Puerto Rico would remain, as it is today, subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution.” That is, a commonwealth would still be a territory. However, the Task Force did recommend the it should be on the ballot of any referendum.

Read the 2011 report.

2021

There has been no report from the new Task Force, since they have met just once. However, the Department of Justice said last month that “the only constitutionally permissible status options available to the status convention—and thus the only options that Congress could subsequently adopt by joint resolution, see H.R 2070, § 6—are statehood, independence, or Puerto Rico’s current status as a territory.”

In other words, the DOJ and all the reports by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico have all said the same thing about status options for Puerto Rico:

  • statehood
  • independence (with or without free association)
  • territory status

Any “other options” being proposed are unconstitutional.

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