Pierluisi pushes parity for Puerto Rico

Since his arrival on Capitol Hill as a freshman, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-P.R.) says his main legislative goal has always been parity for Puerto Rico.

That’s why he resented the decision by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to not allow congressional delegates to vote on the floor in the 112th Congress.

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“I used to be able to vote in the committee of the whole in my first congressional term, but this Congress revoked that rule that allowed the delegates to vote,” Pierluisi told The Hill. “I resent it and I denounced it as [did] a lot of my colleagues … It left a sour taste in our mouths.”

Boehner’s predecessor, now-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), allowed delegates to participate in floor votes, and only made them abstain from voting when they were the deciding factor.

Although the votes did not technically count, Pierluisi said he thought they served the purpose of informing constituents.

“I just thought that it sent the wrong message to the territories,” Pierluisi said. “One of the beauties of allowing us to vote on the floor is that I have to stand on the issues, and my constituents can track what I do. I think that’s useful and it’s democratic.

“It also allowed us to participate in the process — OK, we didn’t vote on final passage and sometimes there was a re-vote and that’s not pleasant to see — but we were participating in the process and that’s healthy in a democracy.”

After being elected in 2008, one of Pierluisi’s main goals was to pass a measure, H.R. 2499, which would have obliged Puerto Ricans to take a plebiscite on whether they would prefer statehood or another form or recognition by the United States government. The measure passed the House in 2010 but stalled in the Senate.

Despite that, Puerto Rico will vote in November on the issue anyway — albeit without Congress’s official stamp of approval.

“There has not been any legislation by Congress in modern history dealing with Puerto Rico’s political status. There has been no legislation by Congress enabling or approving a plebiscite process in Puerto Rico,” Pierluisi said. “I would say that the closest Congress has gotten to doing that was when H.R. 2499 got approved, and what that bill did was to tell the people of Puerto Rico what the people’s House thought the status options should be. That’s useful.”

Pierluisi said he calls himself a “statehooder,” because that is his political preference for the territory. But he also thinks the decision should be made by the people.

“The ball should first be in Puerto Rico’s court, and then once the people express themselves if they chose a new status — it could be statehood or it could be free association — then Congress will have the last word to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or impose conditions,” Pierluisi said.

Although Pierluisi has not secured equal voting rights for territories, he has had legislative successes in getting parity in benefits for Puerto Rico and others.

Before the Affordable Care Act, Puerto Rico received only $2 from the federal government for every $10 spent on its Medicaid program. Pierluisi said that even the wealthiest states receive at least half of their funding from the federal government.

Pierluisi fought hard in his quest to ensure that the Affordable Care Act made Puerto Rico’s portion at least mirror that of states.

“There has been a huge disparity in the way the federal government, particularly the Medicaid program, works in the territories,” Pierluisi said. “In the territories we have a cap, so Congress ended up increasing that cap. We used to be getting $300 million a year, now we’re getting about $1 billion a year.”

Pierluisi said that Puerto Rico’s economy would be devastated if the Supreme Court repeals the Affordable Care Act this month.

“I hope the Affordable Care Act is not repealed,” he said. “In the case of the territories, what happened is that we simply used this vehicle to correct a huge problem; a huge disparity in the treatment in the Medicaid program as it applies to the territories.”

Pierluisi said he was disappointed he could only secure 45 percent federal funding for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid system through the Affordable Care Act — not quite the parity he had hoped for.

“Most of my bills, what they do is try to correct disparities or at least, even if they don’t get approved, they serve the purpose of flagging disparities. That’s a nice way of saying ‘discrimination,’ by the way,” Pierluisi said. “If you start from the premise that we’re American citizens and should be treated fairly, then we should be treated the same as our fellow American citizens.”

Pierluisi’s push for parity extends to funding for fighting drug crime. 

He serves on the Judiciary Committee and one of his recent proposals, H.R. 1550, The Federal Law Enforcement Recruitment and Retention Act, has cleared the committee and is ready for the House floor. It would allocate Department of Justice resources for combating crime based on crime levels rather than other factors.

“I have a long-standing quest to get additional resources for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to fight drug trafficking and related violence in the area,” Pierluisi said. “[H.R. 1550] basically calls for prioritizing the recruitment and assignment and retention of law enforcement personnel in the DOJ umbrella, based on crime instead of assigning agents based on population and geographic location.”

A former Puerto Rican attorney general, Pierluisi said drug-related violent crime is the main issue plaguing the Caribbean territories and accounts for 70 percent to 80 percent of crimes committed on the island.

“The reason why all of this is happening is that we diverted a lot of our attention to the southwest border, and that’s fine, but the problem is that drug trafficking organizations are like moving targets and what they do is, if you increase resources there, they simply divert,” Pierluisi said. “That’s what’s been happening lately and close to 4 million American citizens [in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands] are paying the price.”