The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to take up H.R. 2499, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, this week. Some, namely Rep. Doc Hastings, are seeing problems with the legislation that simply do not exist or claim more time is needed to discuss the issue. No more time or answers are needed. Now is the time to act and pass H.R. 2499.
H.R. 2499 would provide terms for plebiscites that Puerto Rico could conduct to determine the preferences of Puerto Ricans regarding the territory’s political status. It should be noted that the territorial government can already conduct plebiscites on the issue — and has. In fact, all three previous, locally authorized plebiscites that have been conducted have been confused by impossible “commonwealth status” proposals. Under the current “commonwealth” proposal, Puerto Rico would be permanently empowered to nullify federal laws and court jurisdiction and enter into international agreements and organizations while being perpetually guaranteed all current federal programs, new federal economic concessions, and U.S. citizenship. What H.R. 2499 would most importantly do is clarify what the federal government regards as feasible statuses. Simply put, the Commonwealth status is a zero-sum game.
Statehood is not being forced upon anybody. When the Clinton and Bush White House Task Forces determined the current “commonwealth” status defined Puerto Rico as a territory under the territorial clause, many commonwealth supporters abandoned it and asked for feasible, non-territorial options. This bill doesn’t force any of these options on the people of Puerto Rico, and it first asks them whether they want to remain a commonwealth, which they are free to do under the principle of ‘government by consent.’
It is the duty of the federal and local governments to make sure there is still consent for the current relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. There’s nothing wrong with asking them to vote in reasonable intervals. Specifically since the current status has been declared as territorial, which in layman terms means “colonial”.
It’s worth noting that H.R. 2499 is not a Democrat initiative and, in fact, the Republican Party has historically been one of Puerto Rico’s strongest allies in its fight for statehood. Moreover, the majority of the members of the New Progressive Party (the political party in Puerto Rico that advocates for statehood and which, by the way, does not take its name from the Progressive movement and uses the word entirely different from liberals) are members of the Republican Party. Those on the left who are aware of this are afraid that Puerto Rico might become a red state if it were granted statehood.
It should also be noted that Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens already have the ability to petition for statehood, just as they can petition for independence, and nationhood in free association with the U.S. — equal options under the bill.
The suggestion made by some that Puerto Rico would petition for statehood without majority support in the territory has absolutely no basis. Puerto Ricans certainly understand that statehood would not be granted without the petition of a very clear majority. And, in this regard, it should be noted that the bill would not provide for Puerto Rico’s status to change based on a majority for statehood — or independence, or nationhood in free association with the U.S. — or even for federal consideration of the issue in response to such a vote. It would simply determine whether Puerto Ricans support the current status — as is sometimes claimed — or want one of the alternatives.
If Puerto Ricans want one of the alternatives, the federal government could assess whether the support is substantial enough to take any action — which could, for example, consist of providing for further plebiscites to see if the support for a different status is substantial enough or sustained, determining terms for the preferred status and a transition to it relevant at the time, etc.
The argument that Puerto Rico could petition for statehood next year is misleading. In the first place, the bill would provide for plebiscites every eight years on the current status only. If a majority supports territory status, there would not be a vote on possible alternatives, just a vote eight years later on territory status. It is not clear that there would be a majority against territory status next year. Only if a majority opposes territory status in one of the eight year plebiscites would there be a vote on the three alternatives, including statehood.
Also, if there is a clear majority for statehood in a second-stage plebiscite and Puerto Ricans petition for the status, and statehood is granted, there would most certainly be a transition to the new status. Advocates of both statehood and independence in Puerto Rico recognize the need for a transition for economic reasons, including, in the case of statehood, the phase-in of equal taxation in addition to the certain phase-in of equal treatment in federal programs. Generally, a 10 year transition is expected. A bill that passed the House in 1998 under the leadership of House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Don Young (R-AK) and Speaker Newt Gingrich, that would have actually provided a multi-referendum process that could have resulted in statehood, provided for a 10-year transition.
So, if a clear majority of Puerto Ricans supports statehood and Congress subsequently enacts legislation that would ultimately grant it, it is highly unlikely that it would be structured to take effect immediately, without any transition.
What about other states’ seats in the House? The suggestion that Puerto Rican statehood would mean that other states expecting to gain 6-7 seats in the House would not get the seats is a pure ‘straw man.’ Puerto Rico’s population would justify six seats, but the size of the House is set by law. In most cases, it was increased after the admission of new states. The House would certainly want to add six seats if Puerto Rico became a state, rather than have those seats be taken away from other states.
Can a state have two official languages? Hawaii already does. English is already an official language in Puerto Rico, but not in 20 of the currently existing states. Several states use other languages in addition to English. For example, New Mexico uses Spanish in addition to English for all documents and services. This is nothing new. Puerto Rico is already a U.S. territory, populated by U.S. citizens, and fully subject to U.S. laws. Statehood would not add speakers of a language other than English to our national population. As a matter of fact, national English requirements already apply to Puerto Rico, as determined by the federal government.
Would statehood cost the federal government? Not the asserted billions of dollars a year. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the cost would have been $10 million a year under a bill approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and less than $5 million a year under an amendment passed by the Senate Finance Committee. This is because new revenue from equal taxation has to be counted in addition to the cost of equal treatment in federal programs.
Many questions unanswered? The Natural Resources Committee has held extensive hearings on the Puerto Rico Democracy Act bill. It also approved a version of the bill in the last Congress. The bill would implement a proposal of a White House task force named by President George W. Bush in a report on the issue after a serious study.
In sum, support for H.R. 2499 is well justified, and the legislation sets into motion a fair and reasonable mechanism for our fellow citizens on the island to clearly express their preferences for Puerto Rico’s future.