The House Committee on Natural Resources will be considering two bills on Puerto Rico status. This is not by any means the first time Congress has considered. However, for more than a century now Congress has failed to take action. If this year’s consideration of Puerto Rico’s status ends the way previous discussions have, Puerto Rico will continue to be a territory.
The decisions in the Insular Cases allow Congress to keepPuerto Rico in territory status indefinitely.
What’s wrong with that?
Pedro Pierluisi is currently the Governor of Puerto Rico. The last time Congress held hearings on Puerto Rico’s status, he was resident commissioner. In that role, he spoke to the Committee about the three problems with territory status.
“First, territory status deprives my constituents of political rights.”
As U.S. citizens living in a territory, residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote for their president. They can’t vote for senators, because they have none. They elect one Member of Congress, not the four or five they would have as a state.
That congressional representative can’t vote, except in a symbolic way. “I can only watch as my House col- leagues cast floor votes on bills that affect, for better or for worse, every aspect of life on the island. I must rely on the goodwill of senators like you,” Pierluisi told the senators. “But you were elected to protect the interests of your constituents, not mine—so, understandably, our needs are not always your highest priority. I must request assistance from a president who is not obliged to seek or earn our vote. To expect the administration to feel the same urgency to produce positive results for Puerto Rico as it does for the states is to substitute hope for experience.”
“Territory status gives the federal government a license to discriminate against Puerto Rico.”
This is not a complaint or an accusation — it’s a simple statement of fact. Under the U.S. Constitution, all 50 states are on an equal footing. All must be treated equally, whether they are small states with few people, like Wyoming, or populous states like California and Texas. Puerto Rico can be treated differently, by law.
This allows Congress to make decisions based on a desire to save money, rather than basing their decisions on what would be best for the American citizens of Puerto Rico.
“The territory receives fewer federal funds per resident than any state or the District of Columbia,” Pierluisi pointed out. “In 2010, Puerto Rico received about $5,300 per capita from the federal government, which is half the national average.”
“To illustrate, consider a married couple with two children living in the states that earns $25,000, and then consider an identical family living in Puerto Rico,” Pierluisi continued. “Both families owe the same payroll taxes. But the stateside family would receive over $6,000 in credits under the Earned In- come Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit programs, for a final income of over $30,000. The Puerto Rico family, because it is ineligible for the EITC or the CTC, takes home less than $24,000. This is a useful example to bear in mind the next time you hear someone extol the supposed ‘advantages’ of territory status.”
“Territory status—and the unequal playing field it creates—has harmed Puerto Rico’s economy and, therefore, quality of life on the island.”
Sometimes people arguing against statehood say scornfully that statehood supporters are only thinking about money. In fact, justice and equality are on the minds of statehood supporters. But the economic consequences of being a territory are significant. And the consequences in people’s daily lives of this economic injustice are significant, too. There is nothing inappropriate about pointing it out.
“At no point in time in the last 450 months has a state ever had an unemployment rate as high as Puerto Rico’s,” Pierluisi told the committee. “The data on household income reveal a similar pattern. Indeed, whatever economic metric we use, the numbers tell the same narrative: Puerto Rico has lagged far behind the states for at least four decades, and the gap is only increasing.”
This is still true today, but the length of time it has been going on is longer.
“It is clear that territory status serves as a perpetual economic headwind, slowing or stopping forward progress by the ship of state, regardless of who is at the helm,” said Pierluisi.
HR 1522 moves Puerto Rico on to statehood. HR 2070 delays the process, probably for years. If Congress ignores the responsibility to resolve Puerto Rico’s status question, Puerto Rico will continue to be a territory. This is unacceptable.
Let your congressional reps know that it’s time to take action for Puerto Rico.