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Who’s Afraid of Majority Rule for Puerto Rico?

The governor of Puerto Rico, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, knows better than to disingenuously suggest as he did Monday that H.R. 900, a bipartisan bill to begin a democratic status resolution process for Puerto Rico, is coming before the House Natural Resources Committee by stealth and without due consideration (Guest Observer, “Statehood Bill Would Ignore Citizens’ Will”).

To the contrary, the bill was introduced by Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) and me, and close to 130 co-sponsors, because the record before Congress not only justifies but demands that Congress act to restore government by consent and majority rule on the status question in Puerto Rico.

What the record establishes is that Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory with a “commonwealth” system of local constitutional government, under which 4 million U.S. citizens have democratic self-government only as to local matters not governed by federal law. These citizens, many of whom have defended with valor our way of life in every war since World War I, are denied equal rights and duties of citizenship at the national level. They are without access to any federally recognized self-determination process through which full rights of national citizenship can be achieved.

The governor and his political party evoke the pride of the people in our U.S. citizenship when he is in Washington, D.C., but back home they preach an ideological doctrine holding that “commonwealth” entitles Puerto Rico to its own foreign policy and trade relations, nullification over federal law and no federal taxes but increased federal programs. What the governor says to Congress in Roll Call is radically different from what he and his party stand for in Puerto Rico. It is not H.R. 900 but the platform of the governor’s local political party that was shrouded in stealth. It is a blueprint for a regime not possible under the Constitution. Otherwise there would be 50 requests for the same treatment.

Indeed, the record before Congress that led to and supports passage of H.R. 900 includes 15 years of Congressional oversight and legislative hearings, passage of H.R. 856 and adoption of S.Res. 279 in 1998, White House findings and recommendations to Congress, hearings on the White House report and H.R. 900, as well as the governor’s proposal for a local constitutional convention.

The record also includes the 1999 bipartisan report by Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska) and George Miller (D-Calif.) documenting 30 years of local status votes based on options developed in the local political process, which has failed to produce majority rule in favor of the current status or any alternatives accepted by Congress. That report is the best evidence of why the governor’s proposed constitutional convention on status is a nonstarter, not to mention that it is in conflict with local provisions on such conventions.

The governor knows better than to suggest that the current “commonwealth” has ever been approved by a majority in any of the locally sponsored votes he refers to in his misleading account of those confusing and inconclusive past plebiscites. In 1993 his party defined the “commonwealth” they seek, and it is not the current status or one that Congress accepted, and it got 48 percent of the vote. Statehood received 46 percent.

As a result, in 1994, 1997 and 2005 the Legislative Assembly formally petitioned Congress, requesting that it define the options it accepts as compatible with federal law and sponsor a referendum on those options. When Congress failed to do so yet another local vote was held, “commonwealth” was included on the ballot as it is defined by federal law, and it received less than 1 percent of the vote.

It has been to meet the irrational objections of the governor and his party that H.R. 900 has been simplified so that it only asks voters if they want to continue the current status or seek a new status. That favors no options, precludes no option the governor may want to propose in the future, and makes majority rule and government by consent of the governed possible for Puerto Rico. H.R. 900 is literally the very least Congress can and must do to fulfill its historical and constitutional responsibility to support status resolution for Puerto Rico based on self-determination.

Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño (R) represents Puerto Rico.

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