H.R. 2499’s Failure in Congress and Its Success in Puerto Rico
Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR) has confirmed to El Nuevo Dia that once the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico Status (Task Force) releases its report at the end of December, the territory’s New Progressive Party (PNP), pro-statehood government will begin the necessary work to carry out a local (not congressionally sanctioned) plebiscite, which means a vote could happen by mid-2011. During the roundtable with various Spanish-speaking newspapers and news agencies, Res. Comm. Pierluisi expressed his support for the White House’s work on the Puerto Rico status, although the administration postponed to December the release of the report, which was due in October. The territory’s sole (non-voting) representative also expressed his contentment with the administration’s reestablishment of its commitment to the status issue.
Puerto Rico’s representative in Washington specifically said that “Once the White House recognizes the status options available to [Puerto Rico], we will be ready to carry out the next plebiscite in the island.”
A day before the Resident Commissioner’s remarks, President Obama (during his own press conference) restated his administration’s commitment to ending the citizenship inequality that exists in Puerto Rico. Although the President has also said that his principal focus is on the status of the territory, the Task Force has been charged with immediate economic development of the island—regardless of whether the status gets resolved or not.
The comments by Res. Comm. Pierluisi and the President are the latest in the status debate in the “H.R. 2499 Era.” The Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009/10 (H.R. 2499) began as the most bipartisan effort on Puerto Rico’s status, only to see its Republican (and some Democratic) support in the House erode in the hours before the final vote in the lower house. It passed the House with a comfortable margin, but only after it came really close (four votes close) to capitulating to a motion to recommit, which would have sent it back to committee never to be seen again.
A year after having been introduced in the House, H.R. 2499 was handed to the Senate for consideration, where it was received by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources with the usual senatorial disdain; the bill died before it arrived in the upper house—or at least once it entered the chamber, who knows? What we do know is that senators could not find “consensus” on the measure to move it out of committee and into the full senate.
Although Res. Comm. Pierluisi’s bill did not make to the President’s desk, the work that the House Committee on Natural Resources and many other devoted members of the chamber did on behalf of H.R. 2499’s passage cannot be understated. As such, the Resident Commissioner must walk a fine line between encouraging his New Progressive Party about a locally sanctioned status plebiscite, and keeping with the letter of the bill his peers did report out of the House (post-Foxx Amendment H.R. 2499). The reason is that the Resident Commissioner still has two more years in office because he is the only member with a four-year term, and he will need friends when he goes back.
This is a tough spot in which to be for Res. Comm. Pierluisi. After all, H.R. 2499 in its original form was a (just) stroke of genius. As introduced, the bill did three important things in the history of the “status”: 1) it separated the permanent, sovereign options (i.e. independence and statehood) from the non-permanent, territorial option of “Commonwealth”; 2) because of (1), it allowed the “Commonwealth” a chance to vie for continued existence through a democratic majority vote; and 3) because of (2), it placed an eight-year cycle on the “Commonwealth” status so that voters in Puerto Rico could only extend the status quo temporarily (because the territorial status cannot be permanent).
That was on May 19, 2009; a year later, however, things had changed—H.R. 2499 had changed. Although the bill surmounted many frivolous obstacles and underwent a few insignificant changes (e.g. Congress mandated bilingual ballots and put the financial burden of the plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s government), it lost its originality on the status question (and its likely solution) when the House adopted the Foxx Amendment. The effect of the amending motion upon the bill, arguably, might have made it viable and likely to succeed out of the House, but it turned it into a useless bill fit for recommittal—and even withdrawal in conspicuous protest.
Post-Foxx Amendment, H.R. 2499 became an instrument of perpetual obstruction because it now asked the Americans of Puerto Rico to first vote on whether they wanted to change the current (“Commonwealth”) territorial status, and then included the status quo in the second round of voting—you know, the round that was supposed to give Puerto Ricans a permanent solution. All that, with the added bonus of legitimizing the “Commonwealth” status once again as a possible permanent option.
Cynicism was not the only reason for the drastic change; instead, it was a combination of cynical congressional paternalism, ignorant political calculus, and ill-willed irrational policymaking at their best.
The prevailing argument against H.R. 2499 was that it was not “fair” because it separated the “Commonwealth” option from the statehood and independence options in a supposed attempt to “stack the deck” in favor of statehood. While it is true that under the original terms of H.R. 2499 Puerto Rico would have most likely been on track to statehood than to independence, the essential aspects of the status matter need not be ignored once that “conclusion” has been reach.
For example, whether statehood (or independence for that matter) “appears” like the likely “winner” upon the letter of the bill, we need not forget that the “status problem” is the “Commonwealth” status, and that any permanent option’s winning is what victory in the status problem looks like. Is that not what Congress, the President, all parties in Puerto Rico, the United Nations, Castro and Chavez all want? Why, then, should Congress mix two distinct status classes (i.e. permanent non-territorial and non-permanent territorial) in any plebiscite? A minority of Puerto Ricans cannot be allowed to hold the status issue hostage to progress. Concurrently, there should have been no problem with granting Puerto Rico’s “Commonwealth” supporters an opportunity to extend temporarily the territorial status if (and only if) they could garner a simple majority. Supporters of equality for the four million American citizens of Puerto Rico detest the idea of extending the territorial status any further, but given the fact that the only way that could happen was through a majority vote, we were satisfied that this was “the right way.”
H.R. 2499 in its original form might have failed in Congress, but the Puerto Rican electorate approved it long before that occurred. In fact, Governor Luis Fortuño and Res. Comm. Pierluisi campaigned on the plan; they won by the largest margin in Puerto Rico politics. Their slogan: “Every vote for the New Progressive Party is a vote for Statehood.”
Now, the Americans of Puerto Rico must accept the consequences of their stalled efforts for self-determination. A Congress that cannot pass a bill that will certify the permanent status options for Puerto Rico that most everybody understands are available (i.e. statehood and independence); a White House that insists on promoting territorial economic development to the dual detriment of equality and—ironically—true (democratic) economic development; an ever-growing series of political parties vying for their own (detached from constitutional reality) versions of a permanent status; and the vast majority of Americans in the states not having a clue as to what all of this means—all place the legislature of Puerto Rico in the unenviable position to take the lead in solving this problem, finally.
As such, the territory’s legislative chambers should implement their own recipe for status success; one bolder than the original Pierluisi bill. H.R. 2499 may not have had “consensus,” but it enjoyed an abundance of equity and moral fortitude. If the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) did not like H.R. 2499, it should like the legislature’s new plan even less. The plebiscite that will ultimately be carried out in Puerto Rico should not look like H.R. 2499. It ought to take out any concessions made to the enemies of equality, mainly the promotion and promulgation of the “Commonwealth” status as a viable permanent option.
Any plebiscite in which the people of Puerto Rico are asked to vote for legitimate, permanent, sovereign options should (and will) be welcomed by all sides; it just has to be done! H.R. 2499’s failure in Congress and the ostensibly weak-on-substance report expected from the Obama Administration’s Task Force should not deter supporters of self-determination in the Puerto Rico legislature from instituting what they think will, once and for all, rid Puerto Rico of its colonial history and pseudo-democratic “Commonwealth” status.