Did House Democrats fight for freedom when they forced a last-minute vote on the Puerto Rico Status Act – or was it mere virtue signaling? Introduced a mere two days before the end of the legislative session and passed through the House leaving just one day for the Senate’s consideration, the bill seems destined to be reconsidered in the next Congress. So, why push for it now? If Democrats really care about the island territory’s status, they’ve chosen an odd way to show it.
Puerto Rico – A Status Update
Puerto Rico has been a US territory since 1898, and residents have been considered US citizens for well over a century. They can be drafted but can’t vote for president, as the territory isn’t a state. They don’t pay federal income taxes and have no voting representation in Congress, but they do contribute to payroll taxes that support Medicaid, SSI, and SNAP. There have been 145 pieces of legislation seeking to change the territory’s status over the last several decades, but none have ever been approved by the Senate. This is the first to clear the House since 2010.
The main difference this time, however, is that this act requires a binding plebiscite – or popular vote – while previous measures didn’t hold either the people of Puerto Rico or the US government to the results. If passed, this would initiate the sixth popular vote on the idea. In 1967, 60.4% voted to remain a territorial commonwealth. In 1998, 46.6% chose statehood from a list of options that also included independence (2.6%), free association (0.3%), and remaining a territory (0%), but most (50.5%) actually chose “none of the above.”
In 2012, a slim majority rejected continuing the current territorial status, 53.97% to 46.03%, and of those who said “no,” 61.16% opted for statehood. A slight majority of 52% chose statehood in the 2017 referendum, and roughly the same percentage voted for statehood again in 2020.
The federally funded plebiscite to follow this act, should it become law, would offer three choices: Remain a territory, become an independent nation, become a nation in “free association” with the US, or join the Union as state #51. Allegedly, the US government would then honor whichever choice the people make and help guide the transition period. So what does it take to sign up another state? Nothing more than a federal law, passed through a simple majority in the House and supermajority in the Senate, then signed by the president. But therein lies the rub.
Fighting for Freedom or Election Day 2024?
Anyone who finds the timing of this bill odd need only look to the next election cycle for inspiration. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the sponsor, has had since January 3, 2021 to propose such legislation to the 117th Congress – and he has spoken out before about dealing with the “colonial legacy” of the territory. But this bill was introduced after an emergency meeting of the Rules Committee Wednesday night, with the swift passage coming just the next day. It has been passed on to the Senate, but with just one day left before the 117th Congress concludes and no room on the schedule, the upper chamber won’t hold a vote of their own, meaning the bill will have to be re-introduced next year to the 118th Congress.
So why force a vote through the House that has zero hope of passing the Senate before the Friday deadline? The House is currently controlled by Democrats – but it’ll be in the hands of Republicans next year. Just 12 Republicans supported the Puerto Rico Status Act, compared to every Democrat. When the Senate fails to even take up the issue – never mind muster 60 votes – progressives can point their fingers at the GOP while proselytizing about the need to decolonize. When House Republicans fail to take up the measure for vote in the next session, Democrats can spend the next two years bemoaning their failed “fight for freedom” and campaigning on how racist and oppressive the GOP is.
Would Democrats love to get one or two new states with mostly like-minded politicians, such as DC or Puerto Rico, to ensure Republicans never win another presidential election? Of course. But that isn’t the point of this particular play – not given the timeline. If Democrats really cared about the equality and freedom of island residents, they would have proposed the bill with plenty of time for negotiation and a Senate vote. But this was never about statehood or even independence for Puerto Rico – it’s about Election Day 2024.
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