One Year After Being Reintroduced, Puerto Rico Self-Determination Bill Is Going Nowhere

Mar 18, 2022
12:44 PM

Reps. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), sponsors of the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act introduced in both the House and Senate on March 18, 2021.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A year after being reintroduced in the House and Senate, a Puerto Rico self-determination bill appears ready to die on the vine again in the current Congress.

Introduced by Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) on March 18, 2021, the current Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act now has 76 cosponsors in the House, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and the other members of the progressive “Squad,” plus Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Ro Khanna (D-CA), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), Chuy García (D-IL) and others.

The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) on the same day, now has nine cosponsors, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

The new features of the current version include a multiple-choice plebiscite —in which the option would be statehood, independence, a free association or any option other than the current territorial arrangement— and a recommendation for ranked-choice voting.

The bill was always a long shot, faced with a competing Puerto Rico statehood bill introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and championed by Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in the House.

The statehood bill has five cosponsors in the Senate, including Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA), while the House bill has 80 cosponsors, including Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL), Ritchie Torres (D-NY), Ted Lieu (D-CA), Steny Hoyer (D-MD), María Elvira Salazar (R-FL), Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), and Lou Correa (D-CA), along with Puerto Rico’s Republican non-voting member of Congress, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González.

“Self-determination is f—d,” said a senior House aide involved in whipping votes for the competing statehood for Puerto Rico bill. “They both are. We’ve tried to get the votes for statehood but they just aren’t there and Steny won’t bring self-determination to the floor. It’s really as simple as that.”

One distinguishing feature of the Senate’s self-determination bill is that, unlike the statehood bill —all six sponsors of which are Democrats— the self-determination bill is bipartisan, with two Republican cosponsors.

Sens. Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Richard Burr (R-NC) are the GOP’s cosponsors of the self-determination bill that would “recognize the right of the People of Puerto Rico to call a status convention” to discuss the island territory’s future status.

But some Democratic aides dismissed the bill cosponsorship by Wicker and Burr as a hedge against the statehood bill.

“The last thing Republicans want is a new state during this Congress,” one senior Senate aide said. “It would totally and permanently shake up every vote count to add two more Senators, especially if those Senators are Democrats.”

The partisan disposition of a future Puerto Rican state is contentious. Also contentious is the will of the Puerto Rican people themselves on the issue of statehood. The current governor, Pedro Pierluisi, is the head of the island’s statehood party and a Democrat. González, the island’s resident commissioner, is a Republican.

“The United States has never admitted a state under circumstances where the issue was controversial in that territory,” Sen. Wicker told Latino Rebels. “We’ve never done that. There’s always been overwhelming consensus that this is the direction we need to move. I don’t see that happening and I’ve watched this for years.”

“I’ve been on that bill for a number of Congresses,” Burr said about self-determination. “I’ve been to Puerto Rico and more importantly, I’ve been educated, and I feel like (self-determination) is the right thing to do.”

“I think if you get an honest read of the views of the people in Puerto Rico,” Wicker added, “there’ll be a consensus against moving to statehood, which would require the official language of all public forums to be done in English as it is not now. Spanish is the way they think. It’s the way they dream. It’s the way they pray. They wanna keep that.”

Puerto Rico’s official languages are actually Spanish and English, contrary to what Wicker noted, although advocates for self-determination echoed Wicker’s concern over imposing mainland culture through statehood policies.

“Asking Puerto Ricans to choose a status without knowing the full terms and conditions of each option is anything but democratic,” says Federico de Jesús, a senior advisor for the Power 4 Puerto Rico coalition.

“What will be the controlling language in schools, courts, laws, and general government operations?” de Jesús asked. “Right now, it’s Spanish. When would changes to taxes or shipping restrictions kick in? Under the broad grassroots-supported Puerto Rican Self-Determination Act, there would be an informed, transparent and fair process. I’m not sure why some people are so threatened by this.”

Back on the Hill, there is talk about a possible compromise.

“I think there’s going to be an effort to merge both of them,” Rep. Espaillat said about the statehood and self-determination bills. “That’s the only way I see that moving forward.”

Nonetheless, Espaillat said he doesn’t know if merging the all-or-nothing approach of the statehood bill with the open-ended process of the self-determination bill would work.

Wicker still thinks the self-determination bill is the only path.

“They’re loyal American citizens who like this special status,” Wicker explained. “If a commonwealth like Puerto Rico moves to statehood, it ought to be done with a fairly sizable consensus, and so I think this legislation is the best way I see to see exactly where the public opinion lies.”


Pablo Manríquez is the Washington correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports