Thursday, October 22, 2009

Puerto Rico Status Debate Hits Congress

Puerto Rico Debate Hits Congress
By Emily Yehle
Roll Call Staff
Oct. 19, 2009, 12 a.m.
The never-ending debate over Puerto Rico’s political status is again knocking on Congress’ door, but the island’s politicians are betting that a host of new factors will mean that this time they won’t be turned away.

Their hopes center on a bill that would sanction a plebiscite ­— or survey — on whether Puerto Ricans want to keep the island’s current status. If a majority vote for a new status, a second plebiscite would give three options: statehood, independence or “sovereignty in association with the United States.”

Similar legislation has never made it far in the past, thanks to a sharply divided electorate in Puerto Rico and the unwillingness of many lawmakers to get caught in the middle. Most of the island’s residents belong to one of two camps: those who want Puerto Rico to become a state and those who want it to be a “new commonwealth” with more political autonomy.
The plebiscite bill is the brainchild of statehood supporters, raising the suspicion of commonwealthers and thus hindering its progress through Congress in the past. But Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D) argues that this year’s version of the bill has more support than ever, with 182 sponsors, 58 of whom are Republicans. In 2007, a similar bill garnered a total of 132 sponsors.

“This time around, the difference is we’re ready. Now the only matter remaining is to take it to the floor,” Pierluisi said in a recent interview. “I am confident that it will get a very substantial majority when it gets to the floor and that it will get substantial votes from both sides of the aisle.”

The bill passed the House Natural Resources Committee in July with a vote of 30-8, and the committee released its report earlier this month. But whether it gets to the House floor is still uncertain; a similar bill never made it that far in the 110th Congress, despite the committee’s support.

Like last time, the bill has the support of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has kept publicly neutral on the issue. In an e-mail last week, spokesman Drew Hammill said only that Pelosi “supports the rights of the Puerto Rican people to decide for themselves the status of Puerto Rico.”

“To that end,” he said, “the Democratic leadership will continue to gather input from all the stakeholders involved as we continue to discuss this legislation.”

Those stakeholders almost certainly include Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), a native of Puerto Rico who is chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and supports a constitutional convention to hash out all of Puerto Rico’s options. In 2007, she introduced a bill outlining that proposal — which was backed by then-Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá (D), a supporter of the “new commonwealth” — but she declined to offer such a bill this Congress.
Instead, she sent a letter to Pelosi decrying Pierluisi’s bill as the product of a “non-transparent” and “dismissive” process.

“This approach must not be sanctioned,” she wrote. “It would be particularly unfortunate for such a non-transparent approach to be applied to an issue that is highly controversial and so central to the lives of all Puerto Ricans.”

Velázquez has also argued that the plebiscite does not allow Puerto Ricans to determine their own future. Instead, she supports the constitutional convention, where participants would come up with a proposal, allow residents to vote on it and then send it on to Congress.
“It is important that Puerto Rico status legislation is based on consensus and true to the traditions of democracy,” she said in a statement last week. “The people of Puerto Rico deserve a transparent process for self determination, and H.R. 2499 fails to accomplish that.”
But Velázquez’s opposition might not be enough to prevent the bill’s progress this time around. Unlike last Congress, the island’s politicians are solidly behind the plebiscite. Gov. Luis Fortuño (R) backed a similar bill in 2007 when he was Resident Commissioner, and a majority of Puerto Rico’s legislators want the bill to pass.

Jeffrey Farrow, a co-chairman of former President Bill Clinton’s Interagency Group on Puerto Rico, said that such a united front helps the bill’s chances “an enormous amount.”
“The fact that the previous governor was against the bill in the last two Congresses was an impediment because of deference to a governor, because he had developed ties with Members as Resident Commissioner, and because he used government resources to pay for extensive lobbying against it,” Farrow said.

This year’s bill also is slightly different from those in the past, adding an option that is meant to appease those who support a “free association” — or something like it — between Puerto Rico and the United States. The parameters of the association are decided by the two entities in the relationship; for example, the U.S. provides certain aid and social services to Palau in return for full military control, among other things. The U.S. is also in free association with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.

Pierluisi’s bill is somewhat vague on what such a relationship would mean to Puerto Rico and titles it as “sovereignty in association with the United States.” It describes that sovereignty as “a political association between sovereign nations that will not be subject to the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution.”

In an interview, Pierluisi said he was trying to “avoid unfamiliar language, trying to avoid labeling, trying to be all-inclusive,” referring to some groups’ mistrust of the “free association” title.

“It’s a way of grasping the claims of all those who do not want Puerto Rico to be either a state or independent or in the current territory status,” he said.

He hopes the bill will pass the House before the end of the year, paving the way for an effort in the Senate. If the bill makes it that far, Pierluisi might need the backing of the White House to make progress — and so far, President Barack Obama has not weighed in on the issue. Velázquez has already highlighted this fact, asking in her written testimony that the Natural Resources Committee “afford the President the opportunity to act and seek the expertise of this committee as well as other stakeholders.”

But Pierluisi said he is confident the bill’s momentum in the House will jump-start its progress in the Senate. He also emphasized the nonbinding nature of the bill — the plebiscite, he said, is only a way for Congress to “check the temperature” of the island.

“This is a pretty straightforward process,” he said. “I don’t rule out that down the road, once we get a House vote on this, that I may approach the White House. I have simply so far kept them abreast of the bill and my efforts.”

Friday, October 9, 2009

Jeffrey Farrow's Remarks at San Juan Rotary Club

Remarks of Jeffrey L. Farrow
Co-Chair, the President’s Interagency Group on Puerto Rico, 1994-2001,
and Staff Director, U.S. House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, 1982-94
to the Rotary Club of San Juan
October 6, 2009

Thank you, Dr. Maldonado, for the introduction. Thank you, President Sigas, John Regis, and others for the invitation. And thank you all for coming.

I have been asked to speak about the status bill in Congress. Before I do, some points about what I will say and my general perspective on the status issue.

First: What I say will not be influenced by the party in power here. I advise officials of the government, but I also advise federal officials and I think I can be most helpful to everyone -- including the public -- by giving objective, truthful information. I will also take issue with many positions of the PPD but what I say will not be said out of any bias. I have a high regard for some of its new leaders.

My basic perspective is that the status of Puerto Rico ought to be the choice of Puerto Ricans’ among all of the options. The U.S., which took Puerto Rico without the consent of the people, has an obligation to identify the options -- including the options that would provide a democratic form of government at the national government level.

Puerto Ricans have not determined what they want at least in part because of a local dispute about what the options are. In the absence of clarity from the U.S., Puerto Ricans have also made status proposals that the U.S. could or would not implement.

The only time that status choice was really made was in 1967 when there was a majority for a “Commonwealth” proposal different than the current arrangement. The U.S. rejected it. Status was not the issue in the 1950 and ’52 referenda. And referenda in 1993 and 1998 did not produce clear majorities for any proposal, although there was substantial support for “Commonwealth” proposals that the U.S. would not implement.

Actions by the U.S. Government in the early years after Puerto Rico was acquired created doubt here on whether statehood was an option. Statements by some U.S officials during the middle of the last century created doubt on whether independence was an option.

Nationhood is an option for an area that has not been incorporated into the U.S. Statehood is an option for a substantially populated, economically developed territory of U.S. citizens since 1917 who have contributed so much to the nation. Either would be granted now if sought by Puerto Ricans.

The current status cannot provide equal voting representation in the government that makes Puerto Rico’s national laws. Because of this, it cannot be considered Puerto Rico’s ultimate status even if it last a long time more.
But it is an option because: it was established by the Government of the U.S.; a new status ought to represent a genuine majority aspiration of Puerto Ricans; and the U.S. does not feel a compelling reason to end a status that it will maintain for other areas.

There are business arguments for the status quo vs. the democracy, equality, and equality arguments for the alternatives. (The cultural incompatibility arguments are mostly bogus in the country that the U.S. is becoming.) But, if Puerto Ricans are to have a status that is not fully democratic, it ought to be their informed choice, not the result of a failure of the U.S. to enable them to choose.

Last but not least, the question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate status is the fundamental issue of the islands. It raises questions about the appropriate federal economic and social policies. And it distracts attention from important economic and social problems.

A process to resolve the issue might not result in a majority choice now, or for a long time, but it ought to be established.

The bill in Congress, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, H.R. 2499, would authorize -- but not require -- Puerto Rico to hold plebiscites at least every eight years to determine whether local voters and other citizens born in Puerto Rico want the current status and relationship with the U.S. to continue or want a different status. The intent is that the current status would continue if, and for as long as, Puerto Ricans vote for it. If at some point they vote for a different status, a plebiscite among all of the alternatives that have any support would be authorized -- independence, national sovereignty in association with the U.S., and statehood. The President and Members of Congress would be advised of results. That is all that the bill would do.

The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status under President Bush initially proposed the process. But it actually had its origins in a proposal of the PIP that was adopted in 2005 by the Legislative Assembly with the votes of all members -- including those of the PPD.

When the Bush White House consulted me before proposing the process, I questioned whether a vote on the current status is really needed -- since all indications are that an overwhelming majority of the people want a different relationship with the U.S.: about half, statehood; a few percent, independence; about a fifth, nationhood in association with the U.S., and only about a quarter, the current status.

But the Bush White House found the tri-partisan agreement on a vote on the current status attractive. It saw threshold plebiscites on the current status as paying deference to the current status. The governor at the time defended the status in Washington and asserted that it was what the people wanted. The plebiscite would verify that. Alternatives would only be considered if there was a majority for replacing it.

There are two main PPD criticisms of the bill. One is that the process is unfair. Essentially, the argument is that all supporters of nationhood and statehood would vote for the different status option in the threshold plebiscite, it would get a majority, the current status would not be an option in the second-stage plebiscite, and a majority of the vote will be for statehood.

The argument is flawed. The 1998 referendum undermines the assertion that all supporters of nationhood and statehood would definitely vote for the different status option. In 1998, many independentistas and almost all followers of the PPD voted for none of the referendum’s options even though independence, nationhood in association with the U.S., and the status quo were on the ballot along with statehood. Under H.R. 2499, independentistas and advocates of nationhood in association with the U.S. might vote for the current status instead of an undefined different status concerned that the different status ultimately chosen might be statehood. Some statehooders also might not vote for an undefined different status, concerned about an ultimate choice of nationhood.

The related PPD argument is that the bill does not contain the option that the PPD wants. This contention is even more deficient. In addition to having the current status as an option, the bill includes a national sovereignty in association with the U.S. option. The PPD says that national sovereignty in association with the U.S. is what it really wants. (The current status is actually its fallback option.)

The PPD’s specific status proposal is actually a hybrid of aspects of territory status, nationhood, and statehood. It calls for Puerto Rico to be recognized as a nation but the U.S. to be permanently bound to it (which would mean that the U.S. would not really be a sovereign nation). Puerto Rico would have the powers to nullify the application of U.S. laws and U.S. court jurisdiction in most areas and to enter into international agreements that do not compromise U.S. security. The U.S. would be obligated to continue to grant all current programs assistance to Puerto Ricans and citizenship to persons born here. It would also be required to grant a new subsidy for the insular government, a replacement for incentives for U.S. investment in the islands, and continued free entry to products shipped from Puerto Rico (although by virtue of its international trade powers, Puerto Rico would be able to admit products that the U.S. restricts).

This proposal was found to be impossible for the U.S. for constitutional and basic policy reasons by the Justice and State Departments in the Clinton and Bush Administrations, the Congressional Research Service, the House committee of jurisdiction under Republicans and Democrats, and the bipartisan leadership of the Senate committee.

True nationhood in association with the U.S., however, is a real option, and the real option closest in nature to the PPD status proposal. It is more commonly called free association because the essential element is that either nation would be free to end the association. Determining international associations is an inherent attribute of national sovereignty. While all other terms are hypothetically subject to negotiation, in reality, the U.S. would not continue to grant citizenship based on birth in Puerto Rico and all current assistance in a nation of Puerto Rico.
The U.S. is in free association with three former territory areas in the Pacific. I am representing one, the Republic of Palau, in a required 15th anniversary review of the relationship. I delivered testimony to Congress on behalf of the Clinton Administration that free association with Puerto Rico ought to be at least as generous as that provided Palau and the other Micronesian states. But it is unrealistic to think that it would provide many benefits of a U.S. status along with most of the powers of nationhood.

In our Palau talks, U.S. representatives have rejected requests to restore eligibility for U.S. programs that applied in territory status, insisted upon decreasing aid, and want to impose passport requirements although Palauans have free access to the U.S.

There is also the PPD argument here that it has used since its founding regarding any status process that it did not initiate: Now is the time to concentrate on the islands’ economic and social problems instead.

Most of my time for Puerto Rico this year has been spent on economic and social legislation, lately mostly health insurance reform. Resident Commissioner Pierluisi, Governor Fortuno, and others, including Speaker Gonzalez, have been doing very well in efforts to obtain benefits for Puerto Ricans with the help of a few congressional leaders -- better than I would have expected without the White House acting yet on the President’s pledges to Puerto Ricans. But it is exceedingly difficult and Puerto Rico is being treated far from equally. In some cases, a minority of relatively affluent Puerto Ricans not paying tax on local income is the reason given. But in more, it is cost. Relatively needy communities in the States, however, generally receive more aid, not less.

No one involved in these efforts can fail to reach the conclusion that Puerto Rico is severely handicapped by not having votes in the Congress and in the election of the president as well as by starting out by being treated differently than almost all of the rest of the country. This is not a commercial for statehood. Instead, it is an argument for a choice of whether Puerto Rico wants some kind of empowerment, within the U.S. system through statehood or on a national basis, which would open other avenues of addressing Puerto Rico’s economic needs. Even the PPD’s proposals for economic growth -- trade autonomy, exemptions from U.S. regulatory laws -- really require a new status. But, again, the choice of what status or any new status should be Puerto Ricans’.

174 Members of the House have joined Resident Commissioner Pierluisi in sponsoring the Puerto Rico Democracy Act -- more than any previous bill on the issue and not too many less than the 218 votes needed to pass a bill. Almost two-thirds are members of the Democratic majority. The Committee on Natural Resources approved the bill 30-8 -- after defeating two amendments that represent the main strategies of opponents.

One was to require that English be the official language of a State of Puerto Rico and all of the State business be conducted in English.

In its efforts to block the bill, the PPD has continued to work with groups that advocate that English be made the official language of the U.S. (which, by the way, would also make English the official language of Puerto Rico under the current status). The amendment was defeated 24-13.

An amendment to require a two-thirds vote for a different status to authorize a plebiscite on the options for a different status and state that Congress should not act on a less than a two-thirds vote for an alternative to the current status was defeated by voice vote.

The question now is whether the bill will be brought before the full House. A bill only providing for a plebiscite between the current status and seeking one of the alternatives sponsored by Representative Serrano, then Resident Commissioner Fortuno, and 128 other Members was not brought to the Floor last Congress by Speaker Pelosi because of the opposition of a couple of Members, principally Small Business Committee Chair Velazquez. Her opposition is even more potent now as Hispanic Caucus Chair, although a majority of the Caucus has sponsored this year’s bill in contrast to last Congress’.

Also calling the bill into question this Congress is the silence of the Obama Administration, which has not appreciated the fundamental nature of the status issue and wants to avoid the controversy between its supporters in favor and opposed.

The chances of a full House vote have been boosted by the co-sponsorship, the strong Committee votes -- including the defeats of English language and supermajority amendments expected in the full House. But perhaps most helpful is the support of the Speaker’s closest advisor, former Natural Resources Committee Chairman George Miller. He had preferred that the status choice be made in a one-stage vote among all the options, but who has concluded that the bill is fair and is an advocate now.

A backdrop for the conclusion is that the positions of Puerto Rico’s major parties on the process was clear in the last election and, while there were other issues, there was a decisive result.

I get the sense that the PPD expects the bill to pass the House and its real strategy for blocking it will be in the Senate -- although it will try to bloody the bill in the House. It hopes that Senator Menendez and right-wing Republicans will succeed in the Senate where a three-fifths majority is required if there is determined opposition and where a lack of Administration support could be a greater hindrance than in the House (although an Administration position is standard procedure before House consideration).

The democratic and fair way of advancing concerns about bills is to offer amendments, alternative bills, or to vote against bills. The PPD can propose the status it wants or it can again propose recognition that Puerto Rico could have convention to choose among status proposals including the governing arrangement it wants. It could also urge votes against the bill. It and its few supporters have, instead, opted for trying to block letting the Congress and the people vote. This is a cowardly attempt to assert tyranny by a minority.

If majorities in the Congress are willing to authorize Puerto Ricans to vote, shouldn’t votes be authorized? If a majority of Puerto Ricans want one of the alternatives to the current status, shouldn’t that be determined?

There are advantages and disadvantages to the current status -- just as there are to all of the alternatives. The PPD should campaign on the advantages and disadvantages to all and let the people decide.

The bill is not the one that I would have proposed. But I can support any choice of Puerto Ricans on a real option or among real options. Choices in government -- and life -- are among the available alternatives, and decisions should be made about whether a possibility is better or worse. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

Thank you.