The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on April 14th to consider two bills affecting Puerto Rico’s political status. both bills, HR 1522 and HR 2070, have companion bills in the Senate.
While witnesses did mention their opinions on statehood, the hearing focused on issues with the bills.
What are the non-territorial options?
HR 2070 calls for election of delegates to a status convention. With no term limits and no mandate to limit status proposals to those which are possible under the U.S. constitution, they will work with certain members of Congress to develop non-territorial status options for Puerto Rico.
One witness after another, as well as some members of the committee, stated that there are only two options: statehood or independence.
This has been stated by all branches of the federal government repeatedly.
The most recent report from the Congressional Research Service, an agency with the job of researching these questions for Congress, said “the status quo, statehood, independence, or free association with the United States remain constitutionally viable options if Congress and the people of Puerto Rico wish to revisit the island’s political status.”
The status quo, remaining a territory of the United States, is rejected by both bills. Free association, as was stated multiple times during the hearing, is simply a form of independence.
The fact is that statehood and independence are the only viable non-territorial options. Holding a multi-year project to confirm this — especially since there is no question that statehood is the more popular of the two — is a delaying tactic.
However, at one point Nydia Velazquez objected to this claim and asked one of the witnesses to explain why it is not true that statehood and independence are the only options. The witness assured her that all the legal scholars in Puerto Rico agree this is not the case, but did not offer any actual evidence.
Raul Grijalva, chair of the committee, said that he would get official guidance on the question.
Would the outcomes be different?
“It is unclear why electing delegates to lifetime terms to define what status options are available is necessary or accomplishes anything. Additionally the delegates would need to put forward status options for the people of Puerto Rico to vote on. However, the bill does not specify how and if these choices will be narrowed before selection, or if to be voted on, or unanimous,” Ranking Member Bruce Westerman said.
Since statehood has won the last three elections, it is likely that statehood would win the referendum after the status convention as well.
HR 2070 says that Congress “shall” ratify the choice of the people and put it into effect. However, Dr. Christina Ponsa-Kraus, a constitutional scholar, agreed with other witnesses that HR 2070 cannot actually force Congress to do this.
HR 1522, which begins with an offer of statehood from Congress, is a self-executing bill. If Puerto Rico voters accept the offer, admission will take place.
If HR 2070 brings in any result, Congress will be in the same position as they are in now: they have the results of a referendum, which they can respond to or ignore.
What about self-determination?
There were claims that a clear majority vote was not enough to show that Puerto Rico has chosen statehood.
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon asked whether any territory had ever been given a minimum percentage of votes before they could become a state. The answer to that question is no.
Why, then, should Puerto Rico have to meet requirements asked of no other territory?
She asked whether a status convention had been required of any territory, whether a certain level of turnout had ever been required, and similar questions.
Of course, the answer in each case was no.
A free and fair election is an act of self-determination.
A second day of hearings on Tuesday was planned, but has now been postponed.