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PuertoRicoWOW News Service

Congressional Panel: Enhanced Commonwealth Not An Option

by Ivonne Garcia

October 5, 2000
Copyright © 2000 PuertoRicoWOW News Service. All Rights Reserved.

The best of both worlds? Not in this world.

That was the unequivocal message conveyed Wednesday by both witnesses and committee members at a hearing of the U.S. House Resources Committee on a proposed enhanced commonwealth bill drafted by California Republican Rep. John Doolittle.

"This is a legal fiction at best, and a hoax at worst," said an indignant Rep. Dale E. Kildee, one of the committee's members. "This is not a valid option available to [Puerto Ricans]."

Doolittle, who said he would vote against the measure he filed, indicated he introduced the legislation to further discussion on what he said was a definition of enhanced commonwealth developed by the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) in 1998. The PDP, which has described commonwealth status as "the best of both worlds," declined to send official representation to the hearing and has disavowed the process, saying it is aimed as discrediting commonwealth and supporting statehood.

Doolittle's bill described the enhanced commonwealth status as one based on permanent union with the U.S., irrevocable U.S. citizenship, full federal benefits without federal taxes, and the local government's ability to choose what federal laws apply to the island. It also states that the enhanced commonwealth cannot be altered by the U.S. without "mutual consent."

"This enhanced commonwealth would grant benefits without imposing [tax] responsibility," said Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton. "I'd like to see that in Indiana."

Witnesses testifying in the morning before the committee, presided over by Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, included White House aide Jeffrey Farrow, as well as officials from the U.S. departments of Justice and State, and former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo was an active participant during the hearing, as a member of the committee.

Farrow, who congratulated the committee for considering the bill, said the proposal reflected what leaders of the PDP had presented to their followers. He said, however, that the proposal differed from the current commonwealth in that, while reflecting "a desire for greater autonomy," it tied the freedoms of a "sovereign nation with permanent union with the U.S."

"This proposal includes an incompatible mixture of sovereignty with those of a state," Farrow said, adding that some of the parts of the proposal could be modified to make them more "acceptable." He did not elaborate.

William Treanor, testifying for the U.S. Department of Justice, said Puerto Rico had two options under the U.S. Constitution: to become a sovereign nation or to remain under U.S. sovereignty either as a state or a territory.

"From a constitutional point of view, that means that Puerto Rico would continue to be governed under the [U.S. Constitution's] territorial clause," Treanor said.

PDP officials insist that Puerto Rico stopped being a U.S. territory, subject to the plenary powers of Congress, when the Commonwealth Constitution was approved in 1952.

The Justice official also took issue with the notion that any accord between Puerto Rico and the U.S. could be unalterable because "one Congress can't bind another."

"Mutual consent is unenforceable constitutionally," Treanor said, adding: "The Constitution contemplates states and territories, it doesn't contemplate a third status."

On the issue of whether U.S. citizenship is irrevocable, panelists were pressed by Doolittle on whether the U.S. Congress could now revoke citizenship to future Puerto Rico-born people.

Because the Congress granted citizenship to Puerto Rico by statute, some experts argue that statutory citizenship is not irrevocable, as is the constitutional citizenship granted to those born in the U.S.

"As long as Puerto Rico remains part of the U.S., citizenship is constitutionally protected," Treanor said.

For his part, Thornburgh said the proposal defined a status that is not available under the U.S. Constitution. "Congress doesn't have the power to create a status of permanent union [other than statehood]," he said.

An afternoon panel included Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Angel Rotger Sabat and Senate President Charlie Rodriguez, who attacked the PDP's proposals.

"Today, we established that the core of this [enhanced commonwealth] formula and the combinations proposed by the PDP are unconstitutional," Doolittle said at the conclusion of the hearing.

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