Puerto Rico’s statehood piques Congress’s interest post-election
In this recently held 2020 general election in Puerto Rico, the electorate once again voted on a statehood plebiscite. Over 52 percent of the electorate voted yes to the question of whether Puerto Rico should be admitted immediately into the Union as a state. Fifty-two percent of the duly registered voters participated in the plebiscite.
This plebiscite ratifies the 2017 plebiscite in which 97 percent voted in favor of statehood, albeit with 22 percent participation of registered voters. This was the third occasion since 2012 in which statehood has prevailed over other alternatives, such as independence or continued territorial status.
These three recent plebiscites are a clear and sustained indication that a majority of the Puerto Rican electorate favors statehood. These plebiscites, however, have been territorial initiatives without the support of the federal government.
A cursory review of recent history shows the federal government has systematically avoided Puerto Rico’s status question. In the 2012 plebiscite, the Obama administration did not express itself with regards to its results, notwithstanding the fact that in its 2011 White House Report it called on Puerto Rico to address its status question as a necessary step for its recovery.
In 2014, Congress assigned $2.5 million to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review and endorse a plebiscite ballot that would solve the status problem in accordance with the United States Constitution, its laws and public policy. Although the intervention of the DOJ would not bind the federal government to the results of any territorial plebiscite, it was expected it would confer a degree of political legitimacy that previous plebiscites had not enjoyed in certain sectors.
Early on, the Trump administration signaled its efforts to obstruct and delay any territorial plebiscite. In 2017, Puerto Rico’s legislature approved a law to celebrate a plebiscite on whether it should become a state or a sovereign nation. Then Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente declined to endorse the ballot arguing, among other statements, that the territorial alternative had to be included as an option. The Puerto Rico legislature amended the ballot to include the language and additional alternatives recommended by the DOJ. This plebiscite was held without the endorsement of the DOJ and was boycotted by the pro-territorial factions in Puerto Rico. These efforts to derail the consequences of plebiscite were politically successful.
These events coincided in time with the Supreme Court opinion in Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v Sanchez Valle (2016), which finally put to sleep the notion that Puerto Rico was, somehow, something other than a territory of the United States subject to the plenary powers of Congress. It also coincided with the federal legislation of PROMESA, the creation of a Financial Supervisory and Management Board (2016) and Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy proceedings in Federal District Court (2017).
Throughout this period Puerto Rico has also suffered from the effects of hurricane María, the political turmoil which led to the resignation of then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, the continuing downward spiral of its economy and the migration of a large part of its population to the mainland.
Given the DOJ’s earlier refusal to endorse the 2017 and congressional dismissal of its results for lack of voter participation, the Puerto Rico legislature once again approved a plebiscite with an up or down vote on statehood to be held in this year’s general election. The DOJ again refused to endorse it. Given the hostility to statehood for Puerto Rico by outgoing President Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and others in the Republican leadership, it is not surprising that statehood has not been able to significantly move in Congress during the last four years.
As the presidential election well-illustrated, the presence of large groups of Puerto Ricans in central Florida made them politically relevant to both Republican and Democrat electoral strategies. As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden spoke in favor of statehood if Puerto Rico requested it and promised to extend equal treatment in federal programs to the island if he were elected. Time will tell if President-elect Biden follows through with his campaign promises.
Recently Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also spoke in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico. Given that two Democratic senators from Puerto Rico would alter the political equation in the Senate, it makes sense that Puerto Rico is suddenly a significant piece on the national chess table. The Georgia senatorial runoff election slated for January 2021 could well settle this question.
Notwithstanding the above, in an attempt to short–circuit the recently held plebiscite, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) has once again floated a bill for a Status Convention, a procedural Trojan Horse advocated by pro-independence groups. This mechanism is a not too well-hidden attempt to block the advances of statehood, while at the same time attempting to establish a de jure political entity separate and distinct from the United States. A majority of the American citizens in Puerto Rico have historically rejected this process for its populist and anti-statehood design.
After the result of this latest plebiscite, some legislators have begun to turn their attention to addressing Puerto Rico’s political future. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), for example, did not discard the possibility of having a debate in the Senate on Puerto Rico’s status. In the House, Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) likewise stated that he would not object — as he has done de facto during the last two years — to having a debate on the status issue.
Given that a majority of Puerto Ricans have once again indicated a majority support for statehood, and given a new administration that has signaled it is open to addressing the issue, it is time for Congress to exercise its plenary powers over the territories for the benefit of its American citizens.
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.