H.R. 2499: Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009

H.R. 2499

Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009

Sponsor
Sen. Bernard Sanders

Date
April 28, 2010 (111th Congress, 2nd Session)

Staff Contact
Communications

Floor Situation

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.

Bill Summary

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.

 

Background

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.

Cost

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."