27 April 2010

Analysis of 1998 US House Vote on Puerto Rico Status Legislation

As the U.S. House of Representatives proceeds to take up H.R. 2499 to facilitate a referendum process on political status alternatives for Puerto Rico, the issues under intense discussion in 2010 are strikingly similar to those discussed during the last time the U.S. House voted on similar legislation, in 1998. An analysis on the earlier Congressional vote was published in the March 1998 edition of the journal Associate (the predecessor publication to Overseas Territories Review. The 1998 Associate article provided significant insight into many of the same issues which are being debated in relation to the present legislation, and is reprinted below, for comparison purposes.

Puerto Rico Political Referendum Legislation Narrowly Endorsed by US House of Representatives

Associate (Vol. 1 No. 4)
March 1998
Washington, D.C.

Supporters of full integration for Puerto Rico into the United States (U.S.) as the 51st state of the union were given a boost on 4th March (1998) as the U.S. House of Representatives approved by the narrowest of margins legislation that would provide for a U.S. Congressionally-recognized referendum election by the end of 1998 on three political status options. This major development is occurring 100 years following the U.S. takeover of the island from Spanish rule - some say, from the Puerto Ricans themselves who had declared unilateral independence from Spain prior to the arrival of American troops.

According to a 1997 U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) Report on U.S. Insular Areas, the bill "would establish a three stage process for enhancing self-government in Puerto Rico" with the first stage being a (non-binding) referendum to be held no later than 31st December 1998 on the political options of commonwealth (status quo), separate sovereignty (independence or free association), and statehood (integration).

If the referendum choice is either integration or separate sovereignty, the legislation calls for the development by the U.S. President of a ten-year transition plan to be submitted to the Puerto Rico electorate for approval in another referendum. "Assuming the plan was approved, the final stage would begin with the President's submission to the (U.S.) Congress of proposed legislation to implement the form of self-government consistent with Puerto Rico's choice including a proposed date for implementation," according to the report, and "if this is enacted by the Congress, it would be presented to Puerto Rican voters for approval by (another) referendum."

If the commonwealth option is chosen, the status quo continues and another referendum would be held within the subsequent ten year period.

On a vote of 209 to 208 following a marathon session that went well into the night, the full House of Representatives endorsed the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act authorizing the people of the commonwealth/territory of 3.8 million people to choose between the three options. The legislation was introduced in response to a local referendum held in Puerto Rico in 1993 in which the commonwealth option garnered a plurality of some 48.4 per cent.

This marked the first time that the political status under which Puerto Rico was being governed was not favoured by the majority of the population. But as it was noted in the debate by Representative George Miller of California, the political parties in the territory had written the definitions of the individual status options presented in the 1993 plebescite, and the Congress had not responded because it felt that the definitions "were not accurate and would not be supported by the Congress... and did not reflect the laws and the Constitution (of the United States)."

Subsequently a series of Congressional hearings were held in Washington and in Puerto Rico in 1995, resulting in 1996 legislation authorizing a Congressionally sanctioned referendum, rather than a local process.

This legislation was approved in the House Resources Committee, but not taken up by the full House. The present legislation had been introduced in February, 1997 with the definitions of the options ultimately written by the U.S. Congress, following proposals sent by the Puerto Rico political parties.

The House bill will now be considered by the U.S. Senate where similar legislation has been introduced in 1997, but where no action has yet been taken. The measure was fully supported by the island's pro-integrationist New Progressive Party which controls the governorship, the non-voting resident commissionership to the U.S. House, and both houses of the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly. The measure also has the support of President Bill Clinton who commented that the vote "was a victory for democracy and against exclusion."

In a February address to the Democratic Governors Association dinner in Washington, Clinton said that "...it is time that we respond to the aspirations of the 4 million (Puerto Ricans)...and allow them to determine their ultimate political status."[Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Rossello had previously been elected as Chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association, of the Council of State Governments, and of the Southern Governors' Association in a well planned strategy to position Puerto Rico as a de facto state. This had a significant impact on the favourable vote by Democratic Party representatives on the measure on the House floor].

While not endorsing a particular political option, Clinton disagreed with "some people who question the alternative of statehood (integration) because of the Hispanic culture of Puerto Rico," and emphasized that the "ethnic, racial or religious heritage" of the people should not be used as an impediment to their political aspirations.

The Ethnic Question
President Clinton's reference to ethnicity was made undoubtedly in response to strong support for an amendment offered by Representative Gerald Soloman, Republican from New York. That amendment would have mandated English as the official language in government business and in schools in any U.S. state, including Puerto Rico, if it was successful in changing to that status. Some like Cuauhtemoc Figueora, Director of Policy and Communications for the (U.S.) League of Latin American Citizens felt that it was unfair to use the Puerto Rico issue as the vehicle for the English only movement, since such a requirement does not presently exist for other U.S. states (although some 23 of the 50 have voluntarily adopted English as their official language). Conversely, Chairman of the Board of U.S. English, Mauro E. Mujica, noted that his organization was in favour of the Soloman "English only" amendment and expressed the "concern about creating our own Quebec." He went on to note that "after 100 years of association with (the United States), 75 per cent of Puerto Ricans do not speak English and 70 per cent think of themselves as Puerto Ricans and not Americans." He indicated that he was "concerned about creating a state...where only a slight majority (supported that option) and the minority begins to create trouble." He went on to emphasize that "we don't want a secessionist group created in Puerto Rico." The legislation calls for a simple majority of the Puerto Rican voters for the winning option.
In the end, the "Soloman amendment" was rejected by a vote of 370 to 41 , and a "softer"substitute amendment on the language issue was introduced by Republican Dan Burton, and subsequently adopted by the House by a margin of 238 to 182. The new language would provide, in the event of Puerto Rican statehood, that the official language requirements of the U.S. government would apply to the new state "in the same manner and to the same extent as throughout the United States," and called for the promotion of English proficiency in the public schools by the age of 10. A second amendment that would have permitted Puerto Ricans living outside the island to vote in the referendum was also rejected overwhelmingly, bringing into question whether the vote would be considered a true "act of self-determination" consistent with internationally recognized referenda held or planned in other territories, such as Namibia or Western Sahara.
As in the case of the local referendum held in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1993, and its excessive number of political status choices (based on perceived U.S. Congressional considerations), it was clear that consistency with international principles on self-determination does not always figure significantly in resolving the constitutional dilemmas in U.S. territories. Another such example is the refusal to accommodate the rights of the indigenous people in the self-determination process of that U.S. Pacific territory of Guam serving as a reminder of the constraints that emerge when provisions of the U.S. Constitution are unilaterally applied to non-integrated, or un-incorporated, territories in a manner as if they were integrated states. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands which developed from the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands was the only U.S. territory that seemed to have negotiated a sufficiently autonomous arrangement, but as it turns out, the U.S. Congress and executive branch are re-interpreting important provisions of the U.S. - Marianas pact leading to more "federal" control.

Unlikely Political Alliances
The legislation is considered one of the most controversial measures debated by the full House of Representatives in recent years. Representative Soloman in remarks in the general debate commented that both the American and Puerto Rican people are at odds over the matter, and that "members of the House (of Representatives) are divided on this issue, and not necessarily by party." The Puerto Rican politicians themselves were not unified - consistent with the differing views on the island - with supporters of the bill being led on the House floor, in part, by Puerto Rico's non-voting Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo, while opponents of the measure were led by (Democrat) Chicago-based Puerto Rican Congressman Luis Gutierrez.
Much of the Republican leadership including the Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich endorsed the bill, and it was reported that Republicans were asked to support it as one of a number of actions they should take to gain Hispanic votes in the coming U.S. Congressional elections, consistent with an analysis produced by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Many Republicans as well as Democrats seemed convinced, however, that the bill was drafted in such a way as to favour the political integration option in a referendum, and many simply were not ready for that now, if ever. This conclusion was reached since the bill defined the status quo option as a territory that should be decolonized pursuant to the United Nations International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism, according to the House Committee Report accompanying the bill.
Such a portrayal of the political status under which Puerto Rico had been governed since 1952 was strongly opposed by the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PDP) who perceived the commonwealth arrangement as a de facto associated state, governed not by the territorial clause of the U.S. constitution, but rather, by a bilateral pact. PDP President Acevedo Vila had earlier contended in March, 1997 hearings before the House Resources Committee that "the assumption made in the bill that it is not possible to have a non-colonial bilateral relationship, based on mutual consent with American citizenship as a bond between Puerto Rico and the United States is against history (and) legal precedents," and noted that previous legislation introduced in the House on Puerto Rico had recognized the bi-lateral nature of the U.S. - Puerto Rico relationship. Acevedo Vila has termed the present bill "unacceptable," and argued that it "reneges on the word of the United States given to the people of Puerto Rico and to the world in 1953," in reference to statements to the United Nations by the United States delegation that the attainment of commonwealth by Puerto Rico was a form of association with sufficient autonomy that it no longer required oversight by the U.N.
The General Assembly later that year agreed to remove Puerto Rico from the U.N. list of non-self-governing territories (via Resolution 748), although the current arrangement does not meet the standard of a "full measure of self-government" approved by the U.N. in 1960. In what many describe as a classic political contradiction, subsequent efforts to have Puerto Rico re-inscribed on the U.N. list for more than three and one-half decades have been met by steadfast resistance on the part of the U.S. State Department which does not hide its disdain for the U.N. committee that oversees the self-determination process of the remaining non-self-governing territories, mostly in the Caribbean and Pacific.[ The U.S. delegation to the U.N. has been quite successful in recent years in convincing other member countries to approve reductions in the resources appropriated to the U.N. committee from the U.N. budget, and actively seeks the committee's abolishment on the premise that the remaining non-self-governing territories are, in fact, self-governing after all, regardless of whether any changes have been made to upgrade their political status arrangement. This proposition, of course, is diametrically opposed to the position just approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in the Puerto Rico legislation that defines the island as a colony. This 'two Puerto Rico,' as in 'two China' policy, finds Puerto Rico to be a colony in the U.S. Congress, but self-governing at the U.N. ]

The Popular Democratic Party itself had been divided over whether the commonwealth status is an associated territory, as insisted upon by the party leadership, or a colony, as seen by a growing segment of the party. Advocates within the party for a true form of free association argued for their option to replace the "colonial commonwealth " definition. They did not succeed within the party, but independent groups like the Puerto Rico Organization for Free Association (PROELA), the Puerto Rican Autonomist Commission and the Puerto Rico Democratic Action Foundation worked in favour of the inclusion of the free association option, both on the island and in Washington.

The Cost of Statehood

The issue of the projected cost of statehood was another factor in the debate. It was argued by opponents of the bill that if statehood was ultimately granted, it would cost the U.S. treasury over US3 billion in increased welfare benefits as well as the expansion of other social programmes and "corporate welfare." This view of increased U.S. assistance to Puerto Rico under statehood was supported by a 1990 Report of the Congressional Budget Office and by other more recent studies including a 1996 U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) Analysis of Certain Potential Effects of Extending (U.S.) Federal Income Taxation to Puerto Rico, and a 1997 GAO study on Tax Policy-Puerto Rico Economic Trends. A number of private studies, many commissioned by pro-statehood organizations on and off the island, have countered the findings of these federal analyses.

Supporters of the referendum measure, in particular Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo, argued in the debate on the House floor that under statehood, individual Puerto Ricans and corporations based there would contribute over US 4.5 billion in income taxes to the U.S. treasury. But concerns persist that Puerto Rico would be the poorest of the integrated states, would receive more U.S. economic assistance than other states, and would pay the least in taxes to the U.S. treasury. Perhaps the mass defection of Republicans away from their leadership and against the legislation was due in large measure to this potential economic impact. What is also emerging is the concern that the present commonwealth status also comes with its own financial price tag, and an indefinite continuation of the status quo could also come under increased Congressional scrutiny for financial reasons. One outcome of the debate is the increased realization that under the present status, Puerto Rico pays no income taxes to the U.S. treasury.

A rather unlikely alliance in support of the bill was the position taken by the Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP). In a classic case of the "unity of opposites," both the pro-integration and pro-independence parties argue the same point - that the present commonwealth status is colonial and unsustainable. The two parties only differ with respect to the solution. The PIP which has heightened its level of visibility with the U.S. Congress believes that independence will ultimately win out because, as its President Ruben Berrios told the Washington Times newspaper in March, "If we don't obtain a victory now we will obtain it tomorrow because statehood will never be granted." His argument, which is gaining support among U.S. Congressmen, is that "statehood is totally unacceptable to the United States," and if commonwealth is now properly defined as a colonial problem in need of a solution, the only answer is that of independence.

As an indication of this integration - independence dialectic, Romero-Barcelo argued in the House debate that "the unvarnished truth is that Puerto Rico's colonial status remains unchanged," and that "the intent (in creating the commonwealth status) was to create a provisional government until the issue of status was resolved." As Berrios wrote in the bi-monthly U.S. Foreign Affairs journal last November/December, "Congress has acknowledged that commonwealth is territorial under U.S. law which in turn is colonial under international law,(and a) colonial anachronism."
As the Debate Intensified...
Even the influential words of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan were used to support the bill when Representative Joe Moakley of Massachusetts quoted Reagan's 1982 statement that, "in statehood, the language and culture of (Puerto Rico), rich in history, would be respected," and that "statehood would benefit both the people of the United States" and the people of Puerto Rico. The Ronald Reagan Foundation quickly distanced the former president from the process, however, in a letter to the Congress stating that Reagan "is not now nor will he ever be taking any position on (the current Puerto Rico legislation), the issue of statehood for Puerto Rico, or self-determination for the Puerto Rican people." There was no indication as to why the longstanding Reagan endorsement for statehood was being withdrawn.
In any event, Representative Don Young had later made reference to the support expressed in the 1989 State of the Union Address by Reagan's successor, President George Bush, who "long believed that the people of Puerto Rico should have their right to determine their own political future," and who expressed his personal support for integration. So far, no retraction from former President Bush - but the process is far from complete.
In the end, it was the Democrats who rescued the bill. Only 17 of the 27 Republicans on the House Resources Committee, from which the bill originated, voted in favour of the legislation in the full House. All but one of the same Republicans had voted for the measure at the committee level. The final tally showed some 177 Republicans abandoning their leadership by opposing the bill with only 43 in favour. On the other hand, the Democrats who had earlier in the process balked at the definition of commonwealth, overwhelmingly supported the measure with 165 votes to only 31 against.
The Road Ahead
The narrowness of the vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, the lack of consensus among the members of the majority party in the House, and the often contentious debate over culture, language, dignity, finance, Olympic teams and the like under the statehood option all point to a less than certain future for the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status bill. The legislation now shifts to the U.S. Senate where Majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi has offered little support for bringing the measure to the Senate floor this year [Of course, Lott has changed his mind before, most recently, in his widely reported reversal of his original call for the expedited completion of the U.S. Special prosecutor Ken Starr's investigation on alleged sexual misconduct of President Clinton ].
In effect, It would be a simple procedure not to take up the politically explosive issue in the Senate this year, simply on the grounds of the crowded Senate calendar and the fewer than normal days of formal session because of elections in November. But Republican Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with jurisdiction of the Puerto Rico legislation, supports bringing the bill to the Senate floor this year, and several Senate Democrats have also called for debate on the measure. Members of both parties, however, have made it clear that approval will not be easy, in view of the close vote in the House. As the PIP 's Berrios wrote "the traditional policy of Congressional immobility on Puerto Rico seems to be losing ground, though it is still a tempting option for a Congress with a propensity for crisis management."
Puerto Rican politicians are also gearing up for the shift in focus to the Senate. It appeared that the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party had abandoned its lobbying efforts in the House, in the face of a well documented multi-million dollar campaign for approval of the bill by the pro-integrationist forces, and had concentrated their approach on the Senate. The pro-statehood New Progressive Party was, of course, elated with their victory and have stepped up their efforts to press for a Senate vote based on the "momentum." The Puerto Rican Independence Party, meanwhile, views the narrow victory as consistent with their plan to press the issue, in effect, forcing the U.S. Congress to reject statehood for Puerto Rico - something that Congress has been particularly adept at avoiding over the years.
As the debate accelerates, some experts are betting on the "independentista" strategy. If the Senate does approve a companion measure with a compromise House-Senate version signed by President Clinton, enough momentum might be generated in Puerto Rico for a positive vote in the referendum for statehood (especially with the threatened boycott by the commonwealth forces). But will the U.S. Congress support a state with less than a "supermajority" of the voters, in view of the very real concern among many Congressmen over the "Quebec" syndrome? Or as Berrios asks, "Is the U.S. willing to risk a Caribbean Quebec or a tropical Northern Ireland ?" He noted that "it is one thing to accept individual Jamaicans or Dominicans as immigrants(but) it is quite another to annex entire nations like Jamaica or the Dominican Republic as states." Thus, with statehood rejected and commonwealth discredited, the independence advocates argue, some form of separate sovereignty - either independence or free association - would win by default. This is not an implausible outcome.
Of course, should the Senate takes the safe way out and not address the bill at all - there is a tendency not to take up controversial legislation during an election year - the measure will have to be re-introduced in 1999, possibly with new Congressional members and their own ideas on the subject. The process would then begin anew. In view of what has occurred over many years of debate on this issue, it is difficult to bet against this eventuality either. The Congress may be still dealing with this issue decades into the future.
And so it has...