Senate Committee holds hearing on Puerto Rico status, rejects territorial and enhanced commonwealth options

Sen­ate Com­mit­tee holds hear­ing on Puer­to Rico sta­tus, rejects ter­ri­to­r­i­al and enhanced com­mon­wealth options.

by Robert Fried­man | Puer­to Rico Dai­ly Sun

The Sen­ate com­mit­tee weigh­ing the lat­est island sta­tus bill has moved to deter­mine the views of the Oba­ma White House on the con­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty of an “enhanced” U.S.-Puerto Rico com­mon­wealth relationship.

In a let­ter addressed to the pres­i­dent, Sen­ate Ener­gy and Nat­ur­al Resources Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeff Binga­man, D‑N.M., and rank­ing mem­ber Lisa Murkows­ki, R‑Alaska. have asked if the White House stands by a 2001 U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment analy­sis of the island’s sta­tus options, which found the so-called “new Com­mon­wealth” unconstitutional.

That find­ing has been the prin­ci­pal thorn in the side of those who argue that Puer­to Rico could broad­en the com­mon­wealth rela­tion­ship through a com­pact that would include the island’s right to increased sov­er­eign­ty while in per­ma­nent union with the Unit­ed States. The com­pact would include per­ma­nent U.S, cit­i­zen­ship and could not be altered or end­ed unilaterally.

The sen­a­tors asked Oba­ma in the May 27 let­ter for his input both on the sta­tus bill and the polit­i­cal options avail­able to the island.

“More specif­i­cal­ly, we request that the admin­is­tra­tion review the analy­sis of the sta­tus options favored by the three major polit­i­cal par­ties of Puer­to Rico which were pro­vid­ed to the com­mit­tee on Jan. 18, 2001 … and noti­fy the com­mit­tee of its views on this analy­sis,” the two sen­a­tors wrote.

The find­ings by Assis­tant Attor­ney Gen­er­al Robert Raben, made in the final days of the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion, found fault with the pro­pos­al for what was then called the “new com­mon­wealth.” The Raben find­ings were upheld by the sub­se­quent Bush administration.


The Jus­tice offi­cial said then that those propos­ing the new com­mon­wealth saw Puer­to Rico as “an autonomous polit­i­cal body nei­ther colo­nial nor ter­ri­to­r­i­al” while remain­ing in rela­tion­ship with the U.S. But the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion rec­og­nizes only three options: sov­er­eign inde­pen­dence, state­hood or ter­ri­to­r­i­al sta­tus, Raben said. He also said it would be uncon­sti­tu­tion­al to hold the U.S. to a com­pact it could not alter.

Binga­man and Murkows­ki told the pres­i­dent that efforts to address the sta­tus prob­lem were “ham­pered by a fail­ure of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to clear­ly define the sta­tus options that are avail­able under U.S. law.”

The admin­is­tra­tion declined to send a wit­ness either to the House or Sen­ate com­mit­tee that held hear­ings on the lat­est sta­tus bill, intro­duced by Res­i­dent Com­mis­sion­er Pedro Pier­luisi. The full House in April approved the leg­is­la­tion and the Sen­ate pan­el held a hear­ing last month on the bill.

The no-show by the White House in both cham­bers when opin­ions were being sought on the leg­is­la­tion was seen as high­ly unusual.

“We are con­cerned … that the exec­u­tive branch declined to pro­vide a wit­ness or views on the bill,” the sen­a­tors wrote. “We regard the administration’s input as crit­i­cal to the committee’s pro­ceed­ings regard­ing H.R. 2499 [the sta­tus bill] and to Puer­to Rico’s polit­i­cal future,” they told the president.

One Sen­ate source said Mon­day that whether the admin­is­tra­tion still sees an enhanced com­mon­wealth as uncon­sti­tu­tion­al or polit­i­cal­ly undoable is a key ques­tion for the committee.

“It’s the starter ques­tion,” said the source, “because the answer could deter­mine whether that type of arrange­ment would be seen as a viable option in a plebiscite.”

“The admin­is­tra­tion is one of the big pieces on the chess­board,” said the source. “If you don’t have that piece, it could cer­tain­ly make a dif­fer­ence in whether the leg­is­la­tion is passed or not.”

The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion appears to be wait­ing for the President’s Task Force on Puer­to Rico’s Sta­tus to make its next report, which is due by Oct. 31.

“The bill could be dead if they wait until Oct. 31,” said the Sen­ate source. Con­gres­sion­al elec­tions will be held in Novem­ber and, bar­ring any lame-duck ses­sion, the cur­rent Con­gress could adjourn soon after.