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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Political Status of Puerto Rico: Options for Congress

Keith Bea
Specialist in American National Government

R. Sam Garrett
Analyst in American National Government

The United States acquired the islands of Puerto Rico in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. In 1950, Congress enacted legislation (P.L. 81-600) authorizing Puerto Rico to hold a constitutional convention and in 1952, the people of Puerto Rico ratified a constitution establishing a republican form of government for the islands. After being approved by Congress and the President in July 1952 and thus given force under federal law (P.L. 82-447), the new constitution went into effect on July 25, 1952. 

Puerto Rico is subject to congressional jurisdiction under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Over the past century, Congress passed legislation governing Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States. For example, residents of Puerto Rico hold U.S. citizenship, serve in the military, are subject to federal laws, and are represented in the House of Representatives by a Resident Commissioner elected to a four-year term. Although residents participate in the presidential nominating process, they do not vote in the general election. Puerto Ricans pay federal tax on income derived from sources in the United States, but they pay no federal tax on income earned in Puerto Rico. In the 111th Congress, the Resident Commissioner may vote in legislative committees and in the Committee of the Whole. 

Elements of the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship have been and continue to be matters of debate. Some contend that the current political status of Puerto Rico, perhaps with enhancements, remains a viable option. Others argue that commonwealth status is or should be only a temporary fix to be resolved in favor of other solutions considered permanent, non-colonial, and nonterritorial. Some contend that if independence is achieved, the close relationship with the United States could be continued through compact negotiations with the federal government. One element apparently shared by all discussants is that the people of Puerto Rico seek to attain full, democratic representation, notably through voting rights on national legislation to which they are subject. 

Three bills regarding Puerto Rico's political status were introduced during the 110th Congress. H.R. 900 would have authorized a plebiscite in which Puerto Ricans would have voted on continuing the status quo or proceeding toward non-territorial status. H.R. 1230 would have authorized a constitutional convention and referendum in Puerto Rico to consider status options. The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on those two bills in October 2007. At that time, the Committee ordered reported favorably an amended version of H.R. 900, which combined elements of the two House bills. (The written report, H.Rept. 110-597, was issued in April 2008.) Finally, on August 2, 2007, Senator Salazar introduced S. 1936 which proposed another approach: a single plebiscite in which voters would choose between the status quo, independence, free association, or statehood. The status issue was not the subject of additional legislative action during the 110th Congress. 

In the 111th Congress, H.R. 2499 (Pierluisi) would authorize a two-stage plebiscite in Puerto Rico to reconsider the status issue. H.R. 2499 is similar to H.R. 900 as introduced in the 110th Congress. The 111th Congress legislation, however, would frame the plebiscite questions somewhat differently than proposed during the 110th Congress. On October 8, 2009, the House Committee on Natural Resources reported out H.R. 2499 and the bill was placed on the Union Calendar.

Date of Report: March 16, 2010
Number of Pages: 54
Order Number: RL32933
Price: $29.95

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