Hoyer’s Puerto Rico Status Act draft: One step forward, two steps back

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) addresses reporters during a press conference on Tuesday, May 17, 2022 to discuss legislation to improve production of baby formula as the national shortage continues.
Greg Nash
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) addresses reporters during a press conference on Tuesday, May 17, 2022 to discuss legislation to improve production of baby formula as the national shortage continues.

Last week, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-N.Y.) announced the Puerto Rico Status Act discussion draft to much fanfare. The draft is a consensus reached between the sponsors of competing bills Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act HR 2070 and Puerto Rico Statehood Act HR 1522. Although praiseworthy in its attempt to reach some sort of middle ground, it does so by skewering the process with false — or at least, highly debatable — representations on Puerto Rico’s possible status options, specifically with regards to the continuity American citizenship under independence or free association.

The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act is sponsored by Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). This bill aims of addressing the perennial status question by means of a Status Assembly invested with sovereign authority. The constitutional difficulties of this model were clearly shown during the House Natural Resources Committee hearing held in April 14 and June 16 of 2021.

The Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act was sponsored by Puerto Rico’s nonvoting Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-P.R.)and Darren Soto (D-N.Y.). This bill aimed at a up or down vote on statehood, following the 2020 territorial plebiscite in which statehood obtained a 52.5 percent majority. Detractors of this bill argued, among other issues, that it unjustifiably excluded other status alternatives.

The last 10 months have been an exercise in legislative arm wrestling, each faction trying to gain the upper hand. Clearly, neither of the factions has had the political muscle to have their way. In the meantime, House Democrats have been whittling away the political advantage they had at some point in the many issues at the beginning of the 117th Congress. The Puerto Rico status issue is certainly not one of its pressing concerns.        

In the face of the 2022 midterm elections, and the widely held belief that Democrats will most probably lose the House, the question of Puerto Rico’s political status has become — once again — and indifferent afterthought in the larger scheme of political ambitions.

The discussion draft bill is fundamentally political window dressing. It is clear that any bill, be it HR 1522 or HR 2070 or this recently announced draft, will be hard pressed at passing the House Resource Committee, much less a vote in the full House.

On the Senate side, the GOP opposition to moving on the Puerto Rico status question — with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in evident agreement — make any movement on the issue in the House irrelevant.

All of which raises the question: What is the interest in presenting a draft of a bill that has little, if no opportunity, of achieving its purpose?

To be clear, Hoyer’s audience is not Congress but the Puerto Rican and Hispanic electorate, both in the island and in the mainland. In the mainland, the bill shows Florida and New York constituents, among others, that the question Puerto Rico’s status is being addressed. It remains to been seen if this will translate into electoral approval for Democrats in the midterm elections.

Perhaps more importantly, for the island’s audience, the draft bill appears to be an attempt by Velazquez and others to short-circuit the growing support for statehood.

First, the draft bill jettisons the Status Assembly and the territorial alternative. This has already provoked the opposition of the institutional territorial party Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which has raised the objection of electoral disenfranchisement. Certain members of the unionist wing of the PPD are suggesting that the territorial alternative be explicitly included as an alternative. This would be a first. In fact, this proposal would be in line with the request made by the Department of Justice in its comments to HR 2070 and HR 1522 as a precondition of its endorsement.  

Second, in their drive to achieve statehood for Puerto Rico, many pro-statehood politicians have fallen for the unfortunate characterization of the territorial relationship as “colonial” and argue incessantly for its decolonization. The have failed to understand that the language of decolonization and international law leads to independence — not statehood. This failure becomes apparent in this discussion draft bill confronted by the question of American citizenship. Talk about cutting one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Perhaps the single most troublesome aspect of the discussion draft is the inclusion of American citizenship under the alternative of independence, in any of its forms. It is a truism that American citizenship is the third rail of Puerto Rican politics. Such is its gravitational force that the pro-independence factions have had to acknowledge it if they want to be successful in their aspirations. Hence its inclusion in the discussion draft.

Read with objective detachment, as written, the discussion draft invites the political possibility of an independent-sovereign Puerto Rico populated by American citizens, not subject the United States Constitution or its jurisdiction. The fact that many in Puerto Rico and in Congress think that this is a possibility shows the extent of their political delusions. Citizenship, as is well known, follows sovereignty. The matter of American citizenship under independence in any of its forms needs to be addressed truthfully and clearly, not by wishful thinking and false representations. Hoyer’s discussion draft fails in this most important aspect.    

The intent of this proposal is not, in my estimation, to achieve legislation advancing Puerto Rico’s political status issue. This has evidently already been given up in this Congress. Rather, its political purpose is to create a political template for future plebiscites in which American citizenship is assumed by the island electorate to be included in any proposal, to the detriment of statehood.

Both Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and González-Colón, the island’s resident commissioner in Congress, who appear to be locked in a publicity competition for who is more committed to statehood for Puerto Rico, would do well to review their positions on this matter. On the ultimate matter of statehood for Puerto Rico, their endorsement to this stillborn proposal constitutes one step forward and two steps backward.

Andrés L. Córdova is a law professor at Inter American University of Puerto Rico, where he teaches contracts and property courses. He is also an occasional columnist on legal and political issues at the Spanish daily El Vocero de Puerto Rico.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Citizenship Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon Nydia Velazquez Puerto Rico Puerto rico independence Puerto Rico statehood statehood Steny Hoyer

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