Puerto Rico Status Act Stalls in House Due to ‘Outside Interests’

Aug 17, 2022
5:27 PM

From left, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, and Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-AZ —who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources Chair that oversees Puerto Rican affairs— both of whom say lobbyists are thwarting the passage of the Puerto Rico Status Act. (Public Domain)

WASHINGTON — The legislative clock is running out on the Puerto Rico Status Act, and according to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), votes have yet to be counted due to what he says are “outside interests” delaying progress on the bill.

“We haven’t started counting votes yet because there are some outside interests who have weighed in with our members who are negotiating this,” Hoyer (D-MD) told Latino Rebels, adding that he hopes the bill will get a floor vote.

Power 4 Puerto Rico is one such group pushing for changes to the bill. Funded by the Open Society Foundation, the group bills itself as “a national coalition of the Puerto Rican Diaspora and allies working full-time and year-round for federal policies and legislation that will support Puerto Rico’s just recovery, economic growth and self-sufficiency.” (Latino Rebels has published several statements by Power 4 Puerto Rico since 2019.)

In a lobbying market where white counterparts at some of the biggest D.C. firms are routinely paid a half-million dollars or more to influence Puerto Rico policy in Washington, Power 4 Puerto Rico’s chief lobbyist, Federico de Jesús has earned less than $30,000 this year in lobbying fees, according to public disclosures.

De Jesús has joined former New York City Council speaker and Bayamón native Melissa Mark-Viverito to stall the early momentum in the House for the Puerto Rico Status Act by calling for public hearings in Congress and a number of changes to the bill concerning the three options: statehood, free association with the United States, and full independence.

On July 15, Power 4 Puerto Rico sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) urging her “not to let the bill proceed to a committee or House floor vote without prior formal public congressional hearings taking place that are accessible in a Spanish-language format and that address crucial details in this new legislation introduced only a few days ago.”

“In addition to skipping over formal public hearings,” the letter stated, “many in Puerto Rico and the diaspora in the United States are also alarmed at: 1) the scant details in the annexation (i.e., ‘statehood’) option, 2) the lack of clarity on U.S. citizenship under free association, and 3) the imposition of unacceptable conditions under independence.”

Last month, when Latino Rebels asked Power 4 Puerto Rico about the group’s funding, de Jesús and Power 4 Puerto Rico director Erica González said their organization stands “in stark contrast with other organizations receiving buckets of cash from conservative, corporate-backed agendas dedicated to undoing Puerto Rico’s institutions and handing the island over to a powerful few.” They included a link to a May 2021 report tying the statehood movement to the Republican Party and pro-business interests in Puerto Rico and the United States.

Right now, the congressional lynchpin for the future of the bill is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), a second-term Puerto Rican Democrat representing parts of the Bronx and Queens. After initially heralding the bill as a significant step forward toward decolonizing Puerto Rico, Ocasio-Cortez has gone silent about whether or not she supports the legislation she helped negotiate.

Ocasio-Cortez’s silence comes after House Democratic colleagues Reps. Jesús “Chuy” García (IL) and Rashida Tlaib (MI) voted down the bill during its July markup in the House Natural Resources Committee chaired by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), a Mexican American representing parts of Tucson, Yuma, and Nogales.

“At what point do we reach the satisfaction level, particularly with individuals like Federico de Jesús who has pretty much staked out his position, which is, ‘if you don’t give us this, we oppose you,'” Grijalva told Latino Rebels on Friday, adding that “part of the puzzle” for the bill is figuring out what lobbyists like de Jesús want in the bill.

Despite Democratic defections by García and Tlaib, Grijalva oversaw a 25-20 bipartisan committee markup to advance the Puerto Rico Status Act, with the island’s resident commissioner, Jenniffer González-Colón (R) —Puerto Rico’s pro-Trump member of Congress who doesn’t get to vote on the House floor but does get to vote in committees— delivering the only GOP vote in the affirmative.

Ultimately, González-Colón has delivered no Republican voters besides her own in support of the bill, while Tlaib told El Nuevo Día that she voted against the bill at the behest of Puerto Ricans in her district.

García, the other Democratic vote opposing the legislation during the committee markup, indicated that his opposition to the bill was based on his belief that the process could be more transparent, a position that echoes messaging by Power 4 Puerto Rico.

“Power 4 Puerto Rico has been advocating for years on behalf of an open, transparent, inclusive, and binding self-determination process for Puerto Rico,” González said in a statement to Latino Rebels. “The process leading up to the introduction of the Puerto Rico Status Act, behind closed doors and without formal public hearings nor Democratic amendments allowed, falls way short of those principles.”

“Our coalition was seeking amendments in the committee and will advocate for changes on the floor to the bill in 3 key areas:

  • “The Arizona Precedent Amendment. Details needed for annexation (ie US statehood) in areas of controlling language, Olympic representation and transition details.
  • “The Ted Cruz Amendment—clarification of citizenship under free association so at birth citizenship applies with only one US citizen parent.
  • “True Independence amendment to remove provisions dictating process and content to the new republic of PR’s constitution.”

Meanwhile, the window of opportunity for the Puerto Rico Status Act is closing fast.

Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL), a pro-statehood Puerto Rican lawmaker and one of the bill’s negotiators, told Latino Rebels last month that a September floor vote was likely for the bill, a timeline echoed by Grijalva, who now says he’s not so sure.

“I think we’re running out of time for September, to be honest with you,” Grijalva told Latino Rebels on Friday.

“What do we seek?” he added. “For the principals to reach some level of agreement among themselves? Or are we trying to satisfy Federico de Jesús? Because if we’re trying to do that, it’s going to be very difficult.”


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