US Senate holds PR status hearing
Gov. Alejandro García Padilla (president of the commonwealth Popular Democratic Party), Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (president of the statehood New Progressive Party) and Puerto Rican Independence Party leader Rubén Berríos all appeared on Capitol Hill before the U.S. Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over island issues in the upper chamber of Congress. The White House didn’t send a representative as it aims to steer clear of status wrangling between the island parties.
Click here to watch video of hearing: http://www.energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/hearings-and-business-meetings?ID=c65e3706-46e4-40e0-b50e-51e52ac1f2dc#
The hearing, which marked the first time a congressional committee has taken up the status issue since the local election-day plebiscite last November, was headed by committee Chairman Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the panel. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, and Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican also took part.
“We’re here to focus on an issue that has gone on longer than the Trojan War.” Wyden said.
The 90-minute hearing was called to examine the results of the November plebiscite, with both Wyden and Murkowski stating that it was a clear rejection of the current commonwealth status.
“There is no disputing that,” said Wyden.
“After 115 years, it is clearly time for Puerto Rico to determine what political path it will take,” he said. ““The current status undermines our nation's moral standing around the world.”
“It’s clear to me the majority of Puerto Ricans don’t favor the current status,” said Murkowski.
The gallery in the packed hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building included a range of Puerto Rican political figures including statehood stalwart Carlos Romero Barceló, who is a former two-term governor and resident commissioner. NPP Sen. José Aponte was on hand as was attorney José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral, the PDP’s point man on status whose father Rafael Hernández Colón served three terms as governor. Accompanying Berríos was Manuel Rodríguez Orellana, the PIP’s secretary of North American affairs.
The Senate committee, which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico issues in the upper chamber, is not handling any status legislation at the moment. The panel hearing did not take up the White House budget request for $2.5 million to be assigned for the first federally sanctioned status vote in Puerto Rico.
“I think our big challenge is to define what the options are – the legitimate options – and how would that be defined on a ballot,” Murkowski said.
In the November plebiscite’s two-question vote, 53.97 percent of voters said they were against continuing Puerto Rico’s current commonwealth territory status. A second question had voters choose among “nonterritorial” alternatives to the current status, with 61.13 percent voting for statehood, 33.34 percent voting for Puerto Rico becoming a nation in a free association with the U.S. and 5.49 percent voting for independence. Some 26 percent of ballots cast were left blank to protest that the status quo was left off the second ballot.
García Padilla, a national Democrat, backs a so-called “enhanced commonwealth” an arrangement he did not clearly define when queried by senators.
“Nobody knows what enhanced commonwealth means,” said Berrios, “This is just judicial hocus-pocus.”
Senators questioned whether enhanced commonwealth would be allowed by the U.S. Constitution and voiced concerns that such a status would allow Puerto Rico to pick and choose which federal laws would apply to the island.
“It is not an option,” Wyden said of enhanced commonwealth.
García Padilla said the current status gives the economically hobbled an island important tax advantages. He voiced the PDP’s position that the last plebiscite ballot was rigged against the current status and that the empty ballots represent a protest against commonwealth’s exclusion from the second question. He maintains the blank votes dropped support for statehood to just 44 percent.
“The results, nonetheless, show that statehood is on the decline and suggest that commonwealth is still the preferred option,” García Padilla testified Thursday.
“The 2012 plebiscite was not a legitimate exercise of self-determination,” García Padilla said. “This was an electoral process rigged in favor of statehood.”
The governor said The PDP opposed this plebiscite based on three main points: the process’ biased structure; the unfair characterization of the commonwealth option; and the disenfranchisement of pro-commonwealth voters.
García Padilla pointed to the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status report from March 2011 that said: “To move forward, it is critical that the process is accepted by the people of Puerto Rico as fair and that it ensures that even those whose status option is not selected feel fairly treated.”
The governor argued a largely legal defense of commonwealth, pointing out that the term is “used more than 1,000 times in the U.S. code.”
“The process followed for Puerto Rico in 1952 resembled that of the admission of states, with the adoption of a constitution and assumption by Puerto Rico of all responsibilities of local government,” García Padilla said. “Unlike regular laws or organic acts, here an act of Congress came into effect only after the people of Puerto Rico gave their consent, therein its nature as a compact.”
The NPP and PIP leaders maintained that the results of the two-step plebiscite represent a clear rejection of the continuation of the current territorial status. Those voting “no” included statehood supporters, as well as advocates of independence and free association.
“The ELA (commonwealth) lost its democratic legitimacy after the November vote,” Pierluisi told the committee.
The resident commissioner, a national Democrat and the lone representative in Congress of Puerto Rico’s population of 3.7 million, noted that he “represents more U.S. citizens than 42 senators.”
Berríos spoke of Puerto Rico’s inalienable right to independence while lamenting that the Senate hearing would lead nowhere.
“Congress has to tell Puerto Rico under what conditions the U.S would accept statehood. They have to stop wasting our time,” the PIP leader said.
“But don’t kid yourselves, you will never grant Puerto Rico statehood,” he added.
Berríos said Puerto Rico is on a path to become a “commonwealth ghetto or state ghetto.”
He said he would accept a yes or no vote on independence provided sovereignty came “with a reasonable transition period - for your benefit, not ours.”
The White House has said “the results were clear, the people of Puerto Rico want the issue of status resolved, and a majority chose statehood in the second question.”
“Now is the time for Congress to act and the administration will work with them on that effort so that the people of Puerto Rico can determine their own future,” reads a statement by the White House issued in early December.
Senators questioned the three island political leaders on the path forward, including legislation filed by Pierluisi in Congress to put Puerto Rico to steer Puerto Rico to statehood.
Pierluisi’s Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act (HR 2000) hinges on a proposed federally sanctioned “yes” or “no” vote on statehood in Puerto Rico. It has garnered some 115 co-sponsors from across party lines and geographic regions.
García Padilla argues that the vote is not in line with Obama’s call for a process to “to assure fair treatment for all.” Berríos has rejected Pierluisi’s bill as “counterproductive” and “doomed to fail.”
No decision has been made on whether the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee will schedule hearings on HR 2000, but chairman Richard Norman “Doc” Hastings said “there is strong interest among both Republicans and Democrats in Congress in listening to and considering all local views in determining Puerto Rico’s future.”
A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on the costs of statehood is expected to factor into Hastings’ decision, according to CARIBBEAN BUSINESS sources. The report could be ready anytime this summer, but some reports indicate it will be delayed until the fall.
Pierluisi’s bill would make a congressional offer of statehood to Puerto Rico, which voters could reject in a “yes or no” vote.
The bill is the first to formally attempt to win Puerto Rico’s admission as a state of the Union in the more than century-long relationship between the U.S. and the island. The measure aims to commit Congress to the results of the future vote that would take place in Puerto Rico.
Voters would be asked, “Do you want Puerto Rico to be admitted as a state of the United States?” and if they support statehood, the bill directs the president to introduce legislation within 180 days of the vote that would “admit Puerto Rico as a state of the Union on equal footing with the several states in all respects.”
The bill also states “this Act constitutes a commitment by Congress to act, through legislation, to admit Puerto Rico as a state of the Union on an equal footing with the several states in all respects.”