THE UNITED STATES - PUERTO RICO STATUS ACT
I rise today in support of the Young-Miller substitute for H.R. 856, the United States - Puerto Rico Political Status Act.
The political status of Puerto Rico has been a topic of discussion of the Committee on Resources, and its predecessor Committees, for decades. My interest in Puerto Rico began in the 1970's when I was a member of the staff of Congressman Phil Burton of California. I learned then of the political divisions within Puerto Rico, and those political divisions are still in existence.
From my perspective, all three political parties in Puerto Rico make persuasive arguments in support of their respective positions, and I believe all three are viable political options. Additionally, I believe a political status of free association is a possibility for Puerto Rico to consider at some point in the future, but given the present political makeup of the commonwealth, I do not believe it should be included on the ballot at this time.
Before I make my specific comments on H.R. 856, I want to note for the record that I think it is critically important that throughout this process, as an institution, Congress must present itself as fair and as evenhanded as possible. When I speak of self-determination for Puerto Rico, in my mind, that means the people of Puerto Rico choose their own course, and in making that choice all options should be available for the people of Puerto Rico to consider.
Even though Congress has plenary authority over Puerto Rico, I believe it would be a serious mistake for the Congress to impose its will upon the people of Puerto Rico without fair and equitable consultation with the Puerto Rican leaders and the people. I place such high concern on this issue because it is my sense that if Congress is not scrupulously evenhanded in this regard, three things can happen. First, the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico lose their trust in the process and in Congress as an institution. Second, if events do not go as smoothly as Congress might hope, it will be the Congress that will be blamed for the problems, and rightfully so. Third, we all know political status is an emotional issue in Puerto Rico. The Commonwealth has a long history of fair and impartial elections with voting percentages which are the envy of every state of the United States. If the political status selection process were perceived as unfair, I fear the consequences of even the perception of partiality, and again, I believe Congress would have to take its share of the blame and responsibility.
Mr. Chairman, as I see it, the underlying problem, if it is a problem at all, is that over 90% of the people of Puerto Rico are almost evenly split on which political course they should follow. As a result of this, no one group can obtain a majority of votes. Until that changes, any affirmative action Congress takes will not be in accordance with the wishes of the majority in Puerto Rico. Given those facts, I believe it is neither wise, nor good policy, to tilt the scales, just to acquire a majority.
I do have a few concerns with this legislation I want to note. I have said repeatedly that I do not like the idea of one political group defining another political group's definition of itself. To a certain extent, we have that problem in this bill -- the bill contains a definition of Commonwealth status, but it was not drafted and is not supported by the political party which supports that status. It is difficult to ask a political organization to vote for or support a status its members do not support, and that is a serious concern I have with this bill. The situation is complicated by the apparent reluctance of the Popular Democratic Party to provide a definition of "Commonwealth" which could be included in the bill.
Because of the opposition of the one of the major political parties to a key definition in the bill, it was not an easy decision for me to support this bill. I support the definitions contained in the Young-Miller substitute, but want to note that I do not consider the definition of Commonwealth as describing a static relationship as some have stated. Rather, I believe it describes the current dynamic relationship between the people of Puerto Rico and the people of the United States, which can and should be changed over time.
Secondly, while some may not consider Puerto Rico's current relationship with the United States to be a permanent one, it does not make sense to force a change on the people of Puerto Rico which they do not want. It would be a serious mistake to encourage the people into a "permanent" political status that will not best serve their long-term interests.
Third, Mr. Speaker, is the issue of the use of the English and Spanish languages in Puerto Rico. Coming from an insular area in which Samoan and English are spoken I see nothing to gain and much to lose by forcing the citizens of Puerto Rico to give up part of their Spanish heritage by prohibiting them from speaking to each other in Spanish.
On the other hand, we will not be well served as a nation if the vast majority of the citizens of one of our states do not speak English, and speak it well. The example of Quebec, Canada has been often discussed these last few weeks, but that is not the only example. I would also point to the problems in the Balkans and in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a very difficult issue which I believe is appropriately addressed in the Burton-Miller-Young amendment, and I support that amendment.