The Puerto Rico Status Act, HR8393, passed in the House of Representatives last year. Every Democrat voted for it, and 16 Republicans did the same. It went on to the Senate, but did not have time to be considered in the Senate before the end of the term.
The same or a similar bill might be introduced in the current Congress. The House might pass the bill again as they did before. The Senate is currently fairly evenly divided along party lines: the Democrats have 48 seats, there are 49 Republicans, and there are 3 Independents. It could be a tight vote.
What made so many Republicans vote against the bill? Could the bill be changed to encourage Republicans to vote for it, or could the legislators be educated to change their minds before the next vote?
Reasons for voting against HR8393: citizenship and benefits
Some of the nay-sayers had specific parts of the bill that they disagreed with.
For example, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers explained, “I voted against this bill because it requires the U.S. to continue to provide certain federal benefits, even if Puerto Rican voters choose independence. It also authorizes the use of Americans’ taxpayer dollars to fund an education campaign prior to the election.”
Other financial objections came from Rep. Bruce Westerman, who also said, “I cannot support this measure because of process concerns.” Westerman described the process of preparing the bill as “hasty and secretive,” though Rep. Raul Grijalva responded by pointing out the lengthy process of preparation and hearings that went into the bill.
Westerman also objected to some specific provision of the bill in the independence and free association options. “The bill contradicts itself,” he said, “offering Puerto Rico the promise of independence while prescribing actions that should be taken by the newly sovereign nation. How can you be independent yet have another nation dictate what your actions will be? It promises the trappings of U.S. citizenship without the responsibilities of being a part of the United States.”
Rep. Mike Walz said, “The self-executing legislation rammed through the waning days of the 117th Congress is just another barrier to granting the people’s will, while setting a dangerous precedent if independence is chosen regarding citizenship rights, transfer of federal properties, and continued federal payments to another foreign nation, which I cannot support.”
On the status questions
Rep. Tom McClintock was the only congressperson to argue specifically against statehood. “So how does it benefit America to admit a State that would be the most indebted, uneducated, poorest, and least employed State in the Nation?” While this could have been said about nearly every territory that has become a state (that’s 32 states), it was the only argument against statehood.
Nobody spoke against independence or free association, though many of the objections — including those of the members who wouldn’t vote for the bill because it requires financial support the the new nation of Puerto Rico — were to elements of the independence and free association options.
We don’t expect either of those options to win the vote, since every referendum during this century has returned statehood as the preferred option. However, it is possible under the U.S. Constitution, so it is essential that Congress agree with all the possible outcomes.
In the end, just one Member of the House, McClintock, argued against any of the status options. He also wanted to see the current colonial relationship as one of the choices on the ballot.
A number of Members objected to the process by which the bill was developed and presented. Westerman said, “Our neighbors in Puerto Rico are American citizens. They are afforded the protections under the Constitution of the United States. I am from Arkansas. Arkansas was a territory at one time. There is a process for becoming a State. The American citizens in Puerto Rico deserve the respect to have a process that has actually been thought out, that has been debated, and that gives them an opportunity to enter statehood in a way that is more common to the way other States have entered.”
If you have read our sections on the territories that became states, or the book Citizens without a State, then you know that there has not been a single process by which territories became states. Each one has had a different process and a different story. Arkansas in particular was admitted after 25 hours of argument on questions including whether Arkansas was too poor to be a state, whether the territorial government had lied about the population numbers, whether the territory was too violent or too likely to vote Democratic, and of course the details of the territory’s laws on slavery.
However, a number of congressional representatives complained about the process of bringing the law to a vote.
For the future
The independence and free association options may need to rework their requirements for citizenship and financial support in order to be acceptable to Congress. There were many objections on these points.
Some people have also called for addition to the definition of statehood covering things like language and beauty pageants. These issues are not covered by the U.S. Constitution; therefore they are covered by the 10th amendment. The 10th amendment says that anything not covered by the Constitution is up to the states. These issues would therefore be up to Puerto Rico, not Congress. This point needs to be made clear.
Congress must take action on Puerto Rico’s political status. Please reach out to your representatives and encourage them to be on the right side of history.