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Bill to resolve Puerto Rico’s territorial status reintroduced in the House

The original sponsors of the Puerto Rico Status Act said they hope to get more support from Republicans in the House and the Senate.
People rally on International Women's Day in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 8, 2021.
People rally on International Women's Day in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 8, 2021.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP via Getty Images file

The Puerto Rico Status Act, which seeks to resolve its territory status and its relationship to the U.S. through a federally binding plebiscite, was reintroduced in the House on Thursday.

Even though the House passed the bill in December, the Senate never scheduled a floor vote for it, effectively restarting the process of getting the act approved under a new Congress.

The original bill sponsors and co-sponsors in the House said at a news conference Thursday that they are hoping to garner more support from senators, as well as Republicans in the House.

The bill lays out the terms of the plebiscite, or vote, in which Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. territory would get to choose among three nonterritorial status options: statehood, independence and sovereignty in free association with the U.S. — excluding the island’s current territorial status as one of the options for the first time.

"The current territorial status cannot be part of the solution. Actually, it's part of the problem, and that's the reason this bill is so important," said Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, a Republican nonvoting member of Congress representing Puerto Rico who is sponsoring the bill. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-N.M., the former chair of the House Natural Resources Committee — which oversees the affairs of U.S. territories — is the main sponsor.

The bill would also provide a framework to transition into the new status. The new version suggests the plebiscite should be scheduled for November 2025.

The Puerto Rico Status Act was a compromise between members of Congress who previously sponsored competing bills.

It combined elements of two bills: a pro-statehood bill introduced by González and Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., and the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, which proposed a mechanism to choose delegates for a "status convention" to come up with solutions for Puerto Rico's future, sponsored by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez, both New York Democrats.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who was the House majority leader last year, helped lead a monthslong effort to get lawmakers on opposing sides of the status debate to come together under one bill.

"What we agree on, passionately, is that America ought not to be a colonial power," he said at the news conference.

Puerto Rico has been under U.S. control since 1898, following the Spanish-American War. Congress and the federal government have since been allowed to treat Puerto Rico as foreign for domestic purposes and a state for international purposes.

This became evident in 2015 during the Obama administration, when Puerto Rico said it was unable to pay its $70 billion public debt, prompting Congress to create the 2016 Promesa law, because U.S. laws excluded Puerto Rico from the federal bankruptcy code.

Promesa established the federal financial oversight board, which oversees Puerto Rico’s fiscal responsibilities, and created a mechanism for the territory to restructure its debt in federal court.

Puerto Rico’s government formally exited a form of bankruptcy in March, six years after the oversight board was implemented, which led to widely criticized austerity measures on an island that paid $1 billion in fees to consultants and lawyers and in other expenses during the process.

Puerto Ricans living on the island have been U.S. citizens for over a century. They can be drafted and serve in the U.S. military but are unable to vote for president unless they live in the mainland.

Puerto Rico's residents don’t pay federal income taxes, since they don’t have voting representation in Congress. But they pay payroll taxes, helping fund federal programs such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Earned Income Tax CreditPuerto Rico has limited or no access to these federal programs with the potential to serve as lifelines in a territory in which more than 40% of the population lives in poverty.

"Puerto Rico is a responsibility of Congress," González said. "It's Congress who needs to make an offer of what options are available for the people of the island to select."

Emerging concerns

At the news conference Thursday, Velázquez called on Republicans to end this “unjust political limbo” and act on the bill after House Democrats unanimously voted in favor of the Puerto Rico Status Act and the White House pledged its support.

The Republican leadership has a responsibility to the people of Puerto Rico to "provide for a fair shot at scheduling a hearing and listening to everyone, the experts and the stakeholders," said Velázquez, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress.

The House passed the measure in December with a 233-191 vote. All no votes were from Republicans; 16 GOP members joined 217 Democrats to approve the bill. But half of the 16 Republicans who supported the legislation did not return to the Republican-controlled House. In the Senate, Democrats lack the votes to overcome a filibuster.

A vote in the House Natural Resources Committee is required before the bill can get a second House floor vote this year.

The committee is chaired by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who voted against the Puerto Rico Status Act on the floor in December, calling for “letting a full and robust legislative process take place.”

Grijalva said they would be approaching Westerman soon to request a hearing on the Puerto Rico Status Act.

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said he would be joining González in a meeting with Westerman later Thursday to discuss any concerns he may have with the bill.

Power 4 Puerto Rico, a coalition composed of mostly stateside organizations advocating for Puerto Ricans on the island, sent a letter to the committee leaders last month urging them to "conduct public hearings, with ample advance notice and simultaneous translation in Puerto Rican Spanish, in D.C. and Puerto Rico, to carefully examine this critical issue."

It also asked to specify whether Spanish would remain the controlling language of Puerto Rican public affairs and clarify what would happen to the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee depending on the status that gets chosen, arguing they are both integral parts of Puerto Rican culture and national identity.

Additionally, the organization requested clarification and details on how Puerto Rico's federal taxation status would change under another territorial status.

Luis Ponce Ruiz of Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora, which is part of the coalition, said in a statement that while the group welcomes the reintroduction of the bill, it "repeats some of the same mistakes of the 2022" version.

“Our organization will continue meeting with House and Senate offices to express our concerns about this bill," Ponce Ruiz said, adding his group will "promote sovereignty as the only just and politically realistic solution to Puerto Rico’s colonial status.”

Places such as Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands have a sovereignty with free association with the U.S. These are technically independent nations bound to the U.S. by a treaty governing diplomatic, military and economic relations.