Puerto Rico names congressional delegation

Puerto Rico names congressional delegation

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on Monday named three Republicans to the Democracy Commission — the congressional delegation that will seek to be seated as part of the territory's push for statehood.

Former Gov. Luis Fortuño, a fiscal conservative and longtime proponent of statehood, will join the commission. Fortuño is a prominent figure in the national Republican Party, with deep connections on Capitol Hill.

The two other Republicans named Monday are retired Army Maj. Gen. Félix Santoni and Puerto Rico Republican Party National Committeewoman Zoraida Fonalledas.

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Last week, Rosselló named former Govs. Carlos Romero Barceló (D) and Pedro Rosselló Nevares (D) and former Puerto Rico Senate President Charles Rodríguez (D) to the commission.

The seventh member of the bipartisan committee is an independent, former MLB star Iván "Pudge" Rodríguez.

"[Rodriguez] is one of the most important people on the commission because sports in Puerto Rico have always had characters who stand out and make large contributions to American culture," said Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA).

Fortuño and Romero were appointed as Puerto Rico's senators, and the other five members as representatives.

The commission that named the congressional delegation was created under Puerto Rico's statehood law.

Under that law, the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico has to approve the nominations before the delegation can go to Washington.

Following what's known as the "Tennessee Plan" — the process by which Tennessee won statehood in 1796 — the delegates will present themselves in Washington, asking to be seated as voting members of Congress under an act of accession.

Jeffrey Farrow, a territorial affairs expert and former White House aide to President Clinton, said he "can't think of a better group."

"It's a well balanced group in terms of Democrats and Republicans, you've got people here and people on the island, and you've got a famous athletic figure, which kind of brings home the 'Puerto Rico is already part of us' aspect of this," Farrow said.

"Also doing that in a different way, you've got a distinguished military officer, which helps bring home that there have been more than 220,000 Puerto Ricans who have served in the military to protect American democracy," he added.

But critics of the government's push for statehood decried the move, while avoiding criticism of the people named to the commission. 

"Big picture, as someone who supports statehood, I think it's another example of not supporting the rule of law that in the long term jeopardizes statehood," said former New York Gov. George Pataki (R), who represents some of the bondholders that Puerto Rico is indebted to.

Pataki said naming a congressional delegation is a constitutional violation and a distraction from Puerto Rico's financial woes.

Puerto Rico has roughly $72 billion in outstanding bond debt, payment of which is currently being litigated in a New York federal court under bankruptcy-like proceedings.

"The point is they had no legal authority. First of all, Puerto Rico is not a state and second, when you look at representatives in the House or senators, they're not appointed by political officials, they're elected by the people," Pataki said.

Opponents of statehood also criticized the potential cost of the commission, given Puerto Rico's austere budget that came into effect in July.

"How do you explain to a patient who stands to lose health benefits or a retiree who hasn't been paid interest on bonds for over a year that millions of taxpayer dollars will instead be spent on lobbying for an illegitimate exercise in futility such as this?" said Federico de Jesús, who was communications director for Hispanic media in the 2008 Obama presidential campaign and previously served as Deputy Director of PRFAA.

But Mercader said the commission will receive no payment.

"It's all pro bono. Because of advice and recommendations from Ivan Rodríguez — he said, 'I don't want to receive anything, I don't think anyone should receive anything, even reimbursements,'" Mercader said.

De Jesús said the statehood law would have to be amended for the members to act on a pro-bono basis, and the commission would make use of the island's lobbyists and PRFAA's office in Washington.

Still, the committee's composition, with national Republican names like Fortuño, should provide a boost to Puerto Rico's lobbying efforts in Washington, particularly when it comes to dealing with the Republican majority in Congress.

"Members and the executive branch will have to pay attention to them. Their backgrounds and distinction require they be heard by everybody," Farrow said.

- This story was updated at 5:54 p.m.