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Feb. 1, 1999
©Copyright 1999 Dick Thornburgh
As U.S. Attorney General under Presidents Reagan and Bush, I urged Congress to sponsor a democratic process to resolve the status of Puerto Rico based on constitutional principles which favor equal rights and responsibilities for all citizens, as well as government by consent of the governed. Even though these basic values governed our nation's process for resolving the status of 33 other large and populous territories since 1789, in 1998 Congress again failed to take long overdue action on Puerto Rico's status.
Yet, instead of asking why Congress still has no plan to end Puerto Rico's
current state of political limbo, many pundits reacting to a recent status vote
held under local law in Puerto Rico seem puzzled because statehood supporters in
the territory have not abandoned their cause after failing to win a majority.
The results of the plebiscite bear closer scrutiny. With over 73% voter turnout,
45.6% voted for statehood, 2.5% for independence, a mere .01% for the current
political status of Puerto Rico as a commonwealth territory, .02% for
independence with a treaty of "association" instead of union, and 50.2% for
"None of the Above".
Suggestions that a large but indecipherable vote for "None of the Above" constitutes approval of the status quo border on the absurd, especially when the actual status quo option was on the ballot in the most accurate form ever and received negligible support. The only clear result of the vote is that neither the current status, independence nor statehood "won" with a majority of votes cast in the plebiscite.
Many voters clearly remain unwilling to choose between status options defined in local law rather than directly by an act of Congress -- even when definitions under local law accurately reflect federal law. Thus, the 50.2% vote for "None of the Above" expresses for many uncertainty about options, and for others it expresses support for a hybrid of statehood and independence not permitted under the federal constitution. In either case, only Congress can define terms for statehood, separate nationhood or continuation of the current status so that informed self-determination is possible.
The last time Congress exercised its territorial clause power to define the status and rights of residents of Puerto Rico was in 1950, when U.S. Public Law 81-600 authorized establishment of the commonwealth system of self-government in matters determined by Congress or the federal courts to be local. This limited local self-rule was approved by the voters in a 1952 referendum sponsored by Congress, but since then U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico have had no opportunity to express their aspirations for full self-government under options for a permanent status recognized by Congress.
In the recent vote, commonwealth as it currently exists under P.L. 81-600 was rejected by 99.99% of the voters because it was defined as territorial. The reality is that commonwealth is territorial, so the vote against territorial commonwealth creates a duty for Congress to establish a process to restore government by consent of the governed.
Until that happens, Puerto Rico is once again in the same condition it was prior to 1950. The 3.8 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico remain disenfranchised in the federal political process to which they are subject, and administration by the U.S. under the commonwealth created by Congress is not a consensual or fully self-governing status. Unlike 1950, Congress now must decide which of the available status options it is willing to consider, and inform the voters of the terms and conditions for continuing the current status or changing to a permanent new status.
That is how Congress proceeded from 1916 until approval and implementation in 1946 of the terms for independence of the territorial commonwealth of the Philippines. In this way Congress also managed the transition to statehood for 32 territories which became states, including Alaska and Hawaii in the post-WWII era. Territorial history demonstrates that the recent vote in Puerto Rico was but one step in a larger self-determination process for which Congress is ultimately responsible.
For example, in the territory of Wisconsin the vote for statehood was 25% in 1842, 30% in 1843, and 22% in 1844. After each of those setbacks pro-statehood leaders petitioned Congress to set the terms for admission so a more informed vote could occur (just as Puerto Rico's elected leaders are doing). Once Congress responded by defining the terms for admission, the pro-statehood vote in Wisconsin soared to 83% in 1886, resulting in admission.
Similarly, the statehood vote in the territory that became the State of Washington was 47% in 1869 and 30% in 1871. Once Congress approved legislation setting forth terms of admission, 60% of the voters approved statehood.
So instead of being puzzled because elected statehood leaders in Puerto Rico
are asking Congress to act on the basis of the recent plebiscite, let's remember
that America became the greatest nation in the history of the world by
empowering people with the tools for informed self-determination. Sooner or
later Congress will have to do the same for Puerto Rico, and the sooner the
better for Puerto Rico and the nation as a whole.
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