|Date||April 28, 2010 (111th Congress, 2nd Session)|
|Staff Contact||Andy Koenig|
The House is scheduled to consider H.R. 2499, on Thursday, April 29, 2010, under a rule. H.R. 2499 was introduced on May 19, 2009, by Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR) and referred to the Committee on Natural Resources, which held a mark-up and reported the bill by a recorded vote of 30-8 on October 8, 2009.
H.R. 2499 would provide for a federally authorized referendum regarding the political status of the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The referendum would be separated into two votes, the first would ask whether Puerto Rico should maintain its current commonwealth status or if its political status should be altered. If the majority of voters chose to keep the present status, Puerto Rico would be authorized to hold an identical vote every eight years. If the majority of voters cast ballots in favor of altering Puerto Rico's status, voters would then cast a second ballot and choose between independence, sovereignty in association with the United States, or statehood. The results of the ballot would be transmitted to the president and Congress, but there is no requirement that any action be taken in response to the vote.
Under the bill, the ballot would be open to all voters in Puerto Rico who are currently eligible to vote, as well as all U.S. citizens born in Puerto Rico who comply with guidelines determined by the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission, whether they live in Puerto Rico or not. H.R. 2499 would require the Election Commission to ensure that ballots are available in English and to certify the results of the votes. Finally, Puerto Rico would be required to pay all costs associated with any vote.
Puerto Rico has been a possession of the U.S. since 1898 when it was acquired from Spain following the Spanish-American War. The territorial clause of the Constitution grants Congress the "Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States." In 1950, Congress enacted legislation allowing Puerto Rico to hold a Constitutional Convention. Following the authorization from Congress, Puerto Rico wrote and ratified its own constitution in 1952. The constitution established a republican form of government with a Senate, a House of Representatives, and Supreme Court, and a governor who serves as the executive for a term of four years. Puerto Rico is, however, still ultimately subject to Congress and federal law.
Congress has passed a number of laws to govern Puerto Rico's relationship with the U.S. Under current law, Puerto Ricans are recognized as U.S. citizens and able to serve in the Armed Forces and vote for a House Resident Commissioner. But residents of Puerto Rico are unable to vote for the U.S. president (because they are not considered "the People of the several States" under the Constitution) or receive certain federal benefits generally available to residents of the states. Additionally, Puerto Ricans generally do not pay U.S. federal income tax on their Puerto Rico-source income, but are generally subject to payroll tax on those earnings. Puerto Ricans pay federal tax on income derived from sources in the United States.
The question of Puerto Rico's political status has long been the subject of debate, especially among the people of Puerto Rico. In general, there are four main options for the future political status of Puerto Rico: commonwealth, free association, independence, and statehood. Commonwealth status represents the status quo under the commonwealth constitution of 1952 and other provisions passed since by Congress. Free association generally means a situation where Puerto Rico would exist as a self-governing sovereign nation not part of the U.S., but legally controlled by the U.S. with regard to issues of trade, defense, currency, and economic aid, and eventually leading to independence. Under independence, Puerto Rico would become a sovereign nation, wholly apart from the U.S. Finally, statehood would grant Puerto Ricans full rights and benefits of U.S. citizens, including representation in Congress and federal assistance provided to states. Under statehood, residents would also be subject to federal income taxes, which they do not currently pay on income earned in Puerto Rico.
In 1967, the first plebiscite (vote) on the subject of Puerto Rico's political status was held, with continued commonwealth status receiving the majority of the vote. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the pro-statehood and pro-independence factions largely boycotted the vote. In 1991, a different referendum was held and proposed self-determination rights incorporated into the commonwealth Constitution were defeated by a 53 percent majority. According to CRS, some contend that the ballot was defeated because Puerto Ricans saw it as an indirect vote against statehood or because it was feared that expanded self-determination would eventually result in division from the U.S. Another vote was held in 1993, with statehood, independence, and commonwealth status on the ballot. The status quo won 48 percent of the vote, but none of the three major options received a majority of the vote. The last plebiscite was held in 1998 and had five options on the ballot, limited self-government, free association, statehood, sovereignty, and none of the above. According to CRS, there was confusion over the definition of each option, and "none of the above" won with 50.3 percent of the vote, while "statehood" received 46.5 percent of the vote.
Prior to the 1998 plebiscite, the U.S. House passed H.R. 856, United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, by a vote of 209-208. The bill required that Puerto Rico hold a referendum and choose between three political status options: retention of its present commonwealth status, full self-government through separate sovereignty leading to independence, and statehood. The bill was never considered in the Senate and the lack of Congressional action led Puerto Rico to hold the 1998 vote independently.
According to CBO, H.R. 2499 "would have no significant impact on the federal budget because costs of conducting the votes would be paid by Puerto Rico."
Arguments for H.R. 2499
Proponents of H.R. 2499 point out that Puerto Ricans have been granted U.S. citizenship since 1917, and have served the U.S. in the Armed Forces since World War I. Though Puerto Ricans can serve the U.S. in combat, they have never been given the chance to vote in a federally-sponsored election to determine their nation's political status. H.R. 2499 would, for the first time in Puerto Rico's history, grant its citizens an opportunity to vote in a referendum on self-determination that is authorized by Congress. Currently, Puerto Rican residents are bound by federal law but are unable to share in many of the benefits of U.S. citizenship, such as voting for the president or Congressional representation by elected officials. Many who support the bill argue that the legislation merely gives Puerto Ricans the same opportunity for self-determination that other U.S. citizens have been granted since the Constitution was ratified.
Supporters of the legislation also note that the results of the plebiscite would not bind Congress, which ultimately has constitutional authority over U.S. territories. Congress is the only body that can decide the future of Puerto Rico's political status. While the legislation would allow the Puerto Ricans to make their wishes known, Congress must still act. And, unlike previous legislation, H.R. 2499 does not mandate House consideration of legislation regarding Puerto Rico's status. Thus, further debate about the pros and cons of changing Puerto Rico's status would have to occur in Congress. Issues regarding federal benefits, the use of English, Congressional representation, etc., could be addressed properly by Congress. Congress would still have complete autonomy to act or not act in any way it should choose. However, Congress would act fully knowing the prevailing opinion of the Puerto Rican People.
In addition, advocates of the legislation also point out that Puerto Rican self-determination has long been a supported by members of the Republican Party. For instance, the 2008 Republican Platform states, "We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state after they freely so determine." More specifically, the platform says that, "As long as Puerto Rico is not a state, however, the will of its people regarding their political status should be ascertained by means of a general right of referendum or specific referenda sponsored by the U.S. government." Past Republican presidents have also expressed support for Puerto Rican self-determination and possible statehood. In 1982, President Reagan said, "We recognize the right of the Puerto Rican people to self-determination. If they choose statehood, we will work together to devise a union of promise and opportunity in our Federal union of sovereign States." Self-determination is also supported by the current Republican leadership in Puerto Rico, including Governor Luis Fortuño, as well as the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, and the Mayor of Puerto Rico's largest and capital city, San Juan.
Arguments against H.R. 2499
Opponents of the underlying legislation argue that H.R. 2499 is slanted in favor of supporting statehood over the other options for Puerto Rico's political status. The bill would provide a two-step voting process. The first vote would allow the people of Puerto Rico to choose between selecting a "different political status" or maintaining their "present political status." If the majority of the people vote in favor of a different political status, then a second vote would be held allowing people to choose between independence, free association with the U.S., or statehood. Some argue that under the two-tiered voting system, a political option could potentially receive less than 50 percent of the vote in the second ballot, and be heralded as prevailing sentiment of the Puerto Rican people. For example, in 1998, statehood received 46.5 percent of the vote, while none-of-the-above received 50.3 percent. Under the two-tiered system, supporters of statehood (which history shows is the largest contingent opposed to the status quo) could join other voters in supporting a different political status in the first vote and then push the second vote in favor of statehood.
Some opponents also believe that, although the referendum does not bind Congress to act following the referendum, the legislation could build momentum for Congressional action in accordance with the results. If the two-tiered system does favor statehood, the legislation could result in an accelerated process for establishing a new state, opponents say. Today, Puerto Rico has four million residents. As some opponents of the legislation point out, this would mean that Puerto Rico would receive approximately six Members of the House and two Senators to represent them if they receive statehood. If the current limit of 435 House Members were maintained, this would mean that either some states slated to receive new seats following the census would stay at their current levels. According to CRS, this would likely mean that Arizona, Missouri, New York, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington would not receive expected gains in House representation allotments.
Those who oppose H.R. 2499 contend that there are problematic consequences associated with potential Puerto Rican statehood which are not addressed in the bill. For instance, English and Spanish are both official languages in Puerto Rico, and the majority of government business is conducted in Spanish. In addition, Puerto Rican statehood would avail four million residents to certain federal assistance and welfare programs that already operate in the states but are not fully available in Puerto Rico. These new benefits would undoubtedly increase federal spending in Puerto Rico, where the median household income is $18,184 as compared to $35,411 in America's poorest state, Mississippi. Since the legislation would not actually change the current status of Puerto Rico, CBO will not calculate the costs of the possible political options in its score of H.R. 2499.