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Thursday, May 20, 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 island. 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 mainland 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 involved 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. 

On April 29, 2010, for the first time since 1998, the House approved (223-169) status-related legislation for Puerto Rico. H.R. 2499 (Pierluisi) would authorize a two-stage plebiscite in Puerto Rico to reconsider the status issue. As passed by the House, the bill provides that if a majority of voters opt for a change in status in the first plebiscite, a slate of four options (independence, sovereignty in association with the United States, statehood, and commonwealth) would be on the ballot for the second plebiscite. Approval of any one of these options by the Puerto Rican voters would arguably set the stage for, but would not mandate, further congressional action.

Date of Report: May 12, 2010
Number of Pages: 58
Order Number: RL32933
Price: $29.95

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