Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for Congress

R. Sam Garrett

Specialist in American National Government December 28, 2016

Congressional Research Service

Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for Congress

Summary

Puerto Rico lies approximately 1,000 miles southeast of Miami and 1,500 miles from Washington, DC. Despite being far outside the continental United States, the island has played a significant role in American politics and policy since the United States acquired Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898.

Puerto Rico’s political status—a term of art referring to the relationship between the federal government and a territorial one—is an undercurrent in virtually every policy matter on the island. Even in seemingly unrelated federal policy debates, Puerto Rico status often arises at least tangentially. In the foreseeable future, oversight of Puerto Rico is likely to be relevant for Congress as the House and Senate monitor the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA; P.L. 114-187) enacted during the 114th Congress. Status also shaped the policy context surrounding the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 2016 Sanchez Valle case. This report does not provide an economic or legal analysis of these topics; instead, it provides policy and historical background for understanding status and its current relevance for Congress.

In 2016, Puerto Rico voters elected a Governor, Resident Commissioner, and majorities in the territorial legislature affiliated with the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP). This choice represents a departure from the previous four years. Consequently, if the 115th Congress chooses to reexamine the island’s relationship with the United States, the House and Senate could encounter more agreement among the island’s political leaders than in the recent past. Congress has not enacted any recent legislation devoted specifically to status. In the 114th Congress, H.R. 727, which did not advance beyond introduction, would have authorized a plebiscite (popular vote) on the statehood question.

Puerto Rican voters most recently reconsidered their status through a 2012 plebiscite. On that occasion, a majority chose a change in the status quo through statehood, although interpreting the results has been controversial. If Congress chose to alter Puerto Rico’s political status, it could do so through statute. Ultimately, the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress broad discretion over Puerto Rico and other territories.

This report will be updated in the event of significant legislative or status developments.

Congressional Research Service

Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for Congress

Contents

Introduction ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 1 Brief General Background………………………………………………………………………………………………… 1 Why Status Might be Relevant for Congress …………………………………………………………………. 3 Brief Political Status and Policy History…………………………………………………………………………….. 3 Political Parties and Status ………………………………………………………………………………………….. 5 Recent Policy and Political Developments Most Relevant for Congress…………………………………. 6

The 2016 Elections in Puerto Rico……………………………………………………………………………….. 6 The 2012 Plebiscite in Brief………………………………………………………………………………………… 6 Legislation in the 114th Congress …………………………………………………………………………………. 8

Statehood Admission Bill ……………………………………………………………………………………… 9

PROMESA and Status ………………………………………………………………………………………….. 9 Policy and Political Developments After Sanchez Valle ………………………………………………….11

Outlook………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 12

Figures

Figure 1. Puerto Rico and Surrounding Area ………………………………………………………………………. 2 Figure 2. Sample 2012 Plebiscite Ballot …………………………………………………………………………….. 8

Contacts

Author Contact Information ……………………………………………………………………………………………. 13

Congressional Research Service

Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for Congress

Introduction

This report provides policy and historical background about Puerto Rico’s political status—a term of art referring to the relationship between the federal government and a territorial one. The report emphasizes recent developments that are likely to be most relevant for Congress. Congress has not altered the island’s status since 1952, when it approved a territorial constitution. Status is the lifeblood of Puerto Rican politics, spanning policy and partisan lines in ways that are unfamiliar on the mainland. It is unsurprising, then, that status played a secondary but nonetheless important contextual role in recent congressional attention to the island’s ongoing financial crisis, as well as U.S. Supreme Court consideration of the island’s sovereignty regarding criminal prosecutions.

The 2016 territorial election results suggest that if the 115th Congress chooses to reexamine the island’s relationship with the United States, the House and Senate could encounter more pro- statehood agreement among the island’s political leaders than in the recent past. Puerto Rican voters most recently considered that question in a 2012 plebiscite (popular vote). A future plebiscite, backed partially by already appropriated federal funds for an educational campaign, is possible. Because the U.S. Constitution grants Congress broad discretion over territories, the House and Senate may choose to reexamine Puerto Rico’s—or another territory’s—political status, or to decline to do so. If Congress chose to alter Puerto Rico’s political status, it could do so through statute regardless of whether a plebiscite were held or what sentiment such a vote revealed.

This report is not intended to substitute for a comprehensive analysis of the complex and culturally sensitive issues surrounding Puerto Rico’s more than 100-year affiliation with the United States. The report also is not intended to be an analysis of the various legal, economic, or social issues that might arise in considering Puerto Rico’s political status or a change in its relationship with the United States. Parts of this report are adapted from another CRS product, which provides additional discussion of the 2012 plebiscite.1

Brief General Background

Puerto Rico has been the subject of strategic and political attention for more than 500 years.2 Spain was the first colonial power to claim the island. Christopher Columbus landed on the west coast of the main island of present-day Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493. There, he encountered native Taíno Indians, who called the island “Borinquén” (or, in some spellings, “Borinkén”).3 As one scholar has noted, “[a] permanent foothold was finally established in 1508, when Juan Ponce León led a group of settlers from Hispaniola.”4 Spanish colonizers forced the Taíno into servitude, and “[b]y 1521, the Indian Borinquén had become another Spanish

1 See CRS Report R42765, Puerto Rico’s Political Status and the 2012 Plebiscite: Background and Key Questions, by R. Sam Garrett.

2 For additional discussion of the topics discussed in this paragraph, see, for example, Arturo Morales Carrión, Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History (New York: W.W. Norton), pp. 3-8; Robert M. Poole, “What Became of the Taino?,” Smithsonian, October 2011, p. 58; and Manuel Maldonado-Denis, Puerto Rico: A Socio-Historic Interpretation, trans. Elena Vialo (New York: Random House, 1972), pp. 13-16.

3 Columbus called the island “San Juan Bautista.”

4 Arturo Morales Carrión, Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History (New York: W.W. Norton), p. 6. Hispaniola lies west of Puerto Rico and includes present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Congressional Research Service 1

Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for Congress

settlement in an expanding empire.”5 For the next 400 years, Puerto Rico served as a Spanish agricultural and mining outpost in the Caribbean.

When the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War (1898), the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines from Spain via the Treaty of Paris.6 Puerto Rico provided the United States with a central location from which to exercise military and strategic power in the Caribbean, particularly before World War II.7 The U.S. military briefly administered the island until Congress established a civilian government in 1900, as discussed below.

Figure 1. Puerto Rico and Surrounding Area

Source: CRS figure using data from Map Resources (2012).

Today, Puerto Rico is both deeply integrated into American society and insulated from it. On one hand, the American flag has flown over San Juan, the capital, for more than 100 years. In addition, those born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. Many live and work on the mainland and serve in the military. On the other hand, as shown in Figure 1, the island8 is geographically isolated from the mainland U.S.; it lies approximately 1,500 miles from Washington and 1,000 miles from Miami. Residents of Puerto Rico lack full voting representation in Congress, typically

5 Arturo Morales Carrión, Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History (New York: W.W. Norton), p. 8. 6 Treaty of Paris, Art. II; 30 Stat. 1754-1755.

7 For a brief overview of the historic U.S. military presence in and around Puerto Rico, see, for example, Humberto García Muñiz, “U.S. Military Installations in Puerto Rico: Controlling the Caribbean,” in Colonial Dilemma: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Puerto Rico, ed. Edwin Meléndez and Edgardo Meléndez (Boston: South End Press, 1993), pp. 53-65.

8 Despite consisting of three major islands, Puerto Rico is typically referred to as “the island,” as a reference to the largest island of the same name. Culebra and Vieques are also inhabited. A fourth major island, Mona, primarily serves as a nature preserve.

Congressional Research Service 2

Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for Congress

do not pay federal income taxes on income earned on the island, do not have the same eligibility for some federal programs as those in the states, do not vote in presidential elections (although they may do so in party primaries), and enjoy a culture and predominant Spanish language that some argue more closely resembles Latin America than most of the 50 states.

Why Status Might be Relevant for Congress

Some regard status as the fundamental political question that drives everything else about the Puerto Rico-U.S. relationship. Others see status as a distraction from more compelling everyday policy and economic challenges. Perhaps because that debate remains unsettled, status is an undercurrent in virtually every policy matter on the island.9 Federal policy debates generally are less affected by status, but here, too, status often arises at least tangentially. As such, even a basic knowledge of the topic may be helpful in multiple policy areas. In the foreseeable future, oversight of Puerto Rico is likely to be relevant for Congress as the House and Senate monitor the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA; P.L. 114-187)10 enacted during the 114th Congress (discussed elsewhere in this report and in other CRS products11) in response to the island’s financial crisis.

Brief Political Status and Policy History

Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory subject to congressional authority derived from the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution.12 The Territory Clause grants Congress “Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”13 Congress has enacted various statutes to address specific matters concerning the island’s political status. Puerto Rico’s current political status, as determined by federal statute (or otherwise, as noted), is summarized briefly below.

 After military governance since the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico in 1898, Congress established a civilian government on the island in 1900. Among other points, the Foraker Act established an “executive council” consisting of a presidentially appointed civilian governor and various department heads. The new government also included a popularly elected House of Delegates (which shared decisionmaking power with the executive council) and a U.S.-style judiciary system.14

9 For a recent example of island policy debates on other areas and status, see, for example, Carlos “Johnny” Méndez- Núnez, “A New Way of Governing in Puerto Rico,” The Hill, blog posting, November 28, 2016, https://origin- nyi.thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/307654-a-new-way-of-governing. As of this writing, Méndez-Núnez is reportedly Speaker-Elect of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives.

10 130 Stat. 549.

11 See CRS Report R44532, The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA; H.R. 5278, S. 2328), coordinated by D. Andrew Austin; and CRS Insight IN10485, PROMESA (H.R. 5278) and Puerto Rico, by D. Andrew Austin.

12 U.S. Const., Art. IV, Sec. 3, cl. 2. For background discussion of the Territory Clause, see CRS, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation, available on the CRS website under the Quick Link “Constitution Annotated.”

13 U.S. Const., Art. IV, Sec. 3, cl. 2. 14 31 Stat. 77.

Congressional Research Service 3

Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for Congress

  •   The Foraker Act also established the Resident Commissioner position to represent island interests in Washington.15 These duties came to include nonvoting service in the U.S. House of Representatives (the primary role of the Resident Commissioner today).16 Through the Jones Act (1917), Congress authorized appropriations for legislative staff and franking privileges for the Resident Commissioner.17
  •   Devoted primarily to strengthening Puerto Rico’s civil government, the Jones Act also extended U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans and established a bill of rights for the island.18
  •   Congress recognized island authority over matters of internal governance in 1950 through the Federal Relations Act (FRA) and when it approved the island’s Constitution in 1952.19 No major status changes have occurred since.After enactment of the FRA and approval of the territorial constitution, Puerto Rico became known formally as the “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.” Use of the word “commonwealth” and whether the term carries particular legal or political significance is a topic of substantial historical and scholarly debate—most of which is not addressed herein. A brief summary of the competing major perspectives, however, provides important context for understanding the ongoing status debate.Some contend that Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status signifies a unique recognition somewhere between territory and state. This perspective is often called “enhanced commonwealth” or “new commonwealth.” As longtime territories scholar Arnold H. Leibowitz has summarized, those holding this view have

    argued that more than local self-government was achieved by the 1950-1952 legislation. It contends that a new legal entity was created with a unique status in American law: the Commonwealth, a status which is an internationally recognized non-colonial status…. Most important, in this view, Commonwealth is not a “territory” covered by the ‘Territory Clause’ of the Constitution, nor quite obviously is it a state; rather, Commonwealth is sui generis and its judicial bounds are determined by a “compact” which cannot be changed without the consent of both Puerto Rico and the United States.20

    Others, however, contend that, at least in the Puerto Rican context, the term “commonwealth” does not hold particular legal or political significance. From this viewpoint, “commonwealth” is a stylistic or historical term of art, as used in the formal names of states such as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Some also suggest that commonwealth refers to a form of government, but does not designate a unique non-territorial status. As Leibowitz has observed,

    From the outset the non-Commonwealth parties in Puerto Rico, seeking either Statehood or independence … questioned the concept of the Commonwealth. They have argued that although Congress may delegate powers to a territorial government, the broad powers

    15 31 Stat. 86.
    16 For additional discussion, see CRS Report R40170, Parliamentary Rights of the Delegates and Resident

    Commissioner from Puerto Rico, by Christopher M. Davis.

    17 39 Stat. 951; 39 Stat. 963.

    18 39 Stat. 951.

    19 See 64 Stat. 319 (popularly known as “P.L. 600” (P.L. 81-600)); and 66 Stat. 327 respectively.

    20 Arnold H. Leibowitz, Defining Status: A Comprehensive Analysis of United States Territorial Relations (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1989), p. 163. Internal footnotes omitted.

Congressional Research Service 4

Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for Congress

granted to Congress under the Territorial Clause of the Constitution and the implied powers of the national government remain and may be exercised should the need arise. Further they cite the legislative history of Public Law 600 [the FRA] to challenge the compact and Commonwealth concept.21

Debate over significance of the “commonwealth” term notwithstanding, action by Congress would be necessary to alter Puerto Rico’s political status. Doing so, of course, would require passage of legislation by Congress and approval by the President.

Finally, those rejecting the status quo also generally suggest that Puerto Rico’s current status was not intended to be—or perhaps should not be—permanent, and that statehood or independence are natural next steps.

Political Parties and Status

The dominant Democratic and Republican party labels found in the mainland U.S. do not necessarily translate to Puerto Rican politics. In Puerto Rico, politics tends to revolve around three status perspectives represented by the three most established political parties:

  •   The status quo or “pro-commonwealth” position is generally associated with the Popular Democratic Party (PDP/PPD).
  •   The pro-statehood position is generally associated with the New Progressive Party (NPP/PNP).
  •   The independence position is generally associated with the Independence Party (PIP or Independentistas). In recent years, the PIP has not received sufficient electoral support to be certified a major party, but the independence perspective continues to be a factor in the status debate.Views within the three major parties, as well as among other parties and interest groups, are not necessarily uniform. These differences regularly produce active factional groups or officially recognized minor parties. The PDP, NPP, and PIP nonetheless remain the most consistent partisan forces in Puerto Rican politics.Other options that call for modified versions of the current commonwealth status or independence may appeal to members of one or more parties. Typically, the two major perspectives other than the status quo, statehood, or independence are (1) “enhanced commonwealth” and (2) “free association.” The former arguably signals a semi-autonomous status whereas the latter suggests independence with closer ties to the United States than a more traditional independence option. The viability of the “enhanced commonwealth” position is not universally accepted.

    At the federal level, positions on status do not necessarily follow clear partisan patterns. For those Members of Congress who have firm positions on status, personal preference or constituent issues appear to be key motivations. Particularly in recent years, members of both parties in Congress have generally argued that if the island is to choose a different status, clear consensus is necessary among the Puerto Rican people, regardless of the selected option.

    21 Arnold H. Leibowitz, Defining Status: A Comprehensive Analysis of United States Territorial Relations (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1989), p. 164.

Congressional Research Service 5

Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for Congress

Recent Policy and Political Developments Most Relevant for Congress

The 2016 Elections in Puerto Rico

In the 2016 general election, Puerto Rico voters selected NPP candidates for both the Governor and Resident Commissioner posts. The pro-statehood NPP also retained majorities in the territorial House and Senate. Governor-Elect Ricardo Rosselló reportedly “intends to make joining the union [as a state] the central focus of his administration.”22 Soon after the November election, some in the NPP began urging congressional action to admit Puerto Rico as a state.23

In his election night victory speech, according to one media report, Rosselló called his election an “‘unequivocal mandate to tell the world that the transition to statehood has started,’ which he will promote through the Tennessee Plan.”24 The “Tennessee Plan” is a term of art referring to the method by which Tennessee and six other states joined the union.25 Each territory employed this method somewhat differently, but the central thrust of the Tennessee Plan involves organizing a political entity that is essentially a state in all but name. Steps typically include drafting of a state constitution, election of state officers, and sending an elected congressional delegation to Washington to lobby for statehood.26 These developments notwithstanding, there is no single path to statehood. Changing Puerto Rico’s political status by the Tennessee Plan or any other method ultimately would require a statutory change by Congress with presidential approval.

The 2012 Plebiscite in Brief

Puerto Rico has held five status plebiscites (popular votes) or referenda since adopting its current relationship with the United States. These votes were held in 2012, 1998, 1993, 1991, and 1967. Ballot wording and options during each plebiscite or referenda differed. Most recently, in 2012, voters were asked to answer two questions: (1) whether they wished to maintain Puerto Rico’s current political status; and (2) regardless of the choice in the first question, whether they preferred statehood, independence, or to be a “sovereign free associated state.” Figure 2 shows a sample ballot.

According to results certified by the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission, approximately 54.0% of those who cast ballots answered “no” to the first question. In the second question,

22 Danica Coto, “Top Candidate Wants Puerto Rico Statehood,” Chicago Tribune, November 6, 2016, p. 27.

23 Jose Aponte-Hernandez, “Puerto Rico Takes Giant Leap Toward Statehood,” The Hill, blog posting, November 15, 2016, https://origin-nyi.thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/305990-puerto-rico-takes-giant-leap-towards- statehood. Aponte-Hernandez is a former Speaker of the territorial House of Representatives and remains a legislator.

24 Cindy Burgos Alvarado, “Rosselló Says He Will Be ‘Last Governor of the Colony,’” Caribbean Business, November 8, 2016, http://caribbeanbusiness.com/rossello-says-he-will-be-last-governor-of-the-colony/; accessed via CRS Factiva subscription.

25 Tennessee was the first territorial area admitted to the union as a state. For historical background, see, for example, John Whitfield, The Early History of Tennessee: From Frontier to Statehood (Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 1999), p. 125. Other former territories that followed statehood paths similar to the Tennessee Plan include, in chronological order, Michigan, Iowa, California, Oregon, Kansas, and Alaska.

26 See, for example, Grupo de Investigadores Puertoriqueños, Breakthrough from Colonialism: An Interdisciplinary Study of Statehood (Río Piedras, PR: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1984), pp. 1209-1215. Some of these steps would be relevant for Puerto Rico, while others would not; an analysis of the topic is beyond the scope of this report.

Congressional Research Service 6

Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for Congress

approximately 61.2% of voters chose statehood. 27 However, results of the plebiscite were controversial. Debate focused on whether almost 500,000 blank answers on the second question should be included in the total, thereby affecting whether any option received a majority. A concurrent resolution approved by the territorial legislature and supported by PDP Governor Alejandro García Padilla (who was elected on the same day as the plebiscite) contended that the results were “inconclusive.” Another CRS report provides additional detail about the 2012 plebiscite.28

Advertisements