Statement of Jeffrey L Farrow
Co-Chair of the President's Working Group on Puerto Rico
before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources
on H.R. 856 - the proposed United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act
March I9, 1997 * Washington, D.C.
Mr. Chairman and distinguished Members:
Thank you for inviting the Clinton Administration to testify on --
1) the general idea of authorizing the people of Puerto Rico to express their preference regarding their islands' relationship to the United States before the end of 1998 and
2) the bill that the Chairman and other Members have sponsored to provide a process leading to full self-government for the Commonwealth, H.R. 856.
Let me begin by expressing appreciation for the interest and initiative of Chairman Young and the other primary sponsors of H.R. 856 in Puerto Rico's political status dilemma: It is a matter of transcendent importance, concerning the political rights of millions of U.S, citizens and a major factor in determining the approach to many of the serious economic and social challenges faced in the islands.
It is also, however, extremely complex and sensitive, involving much of the range of Federal policy, central questions of identity, a century of history, the interests of political parties that are based on conflicting visions of what the best status would be, and differences so intense that they hinder action on the issue itself and other issues as well.
President Clinton is dedicated to supporting the people of Puerto Rico's decision of what status their islands should have. He has pledged to back statehood or independence if Puerto Ricans vote for either one and to do his best to make the Commonwealth arrangement work better for them if they want to continue it.
He has also, though recognized that the frustrating debate is likely to persist until the Federal Government clarifies what the options really are and how they can be implemented: The differing status aspirations that Puerto Ricans have long discussed largely hinge on fundamental Federal decisions that have not been made.
The President has, therefore, favored Puerto Ricans making a choice in concert with congressional action in a process that is developed together with their representatives.
Establishing a process that would enable this matter to finally be resolved is his highest priority regarding the islands. And he is fully committed to working with you and others in the Congress, with Puerto Rico's elected leaders, and with all concerned to establish it as soon as possible.
The President's position is that the Federal Government should --
1) provide the people of Puerto Rico with options that are serious and fair responses to their diverse, expressed aspirations and
2) commit to act on implementing an option that is authorized by a majority vote in the islands.
He very much hopes that such a process will be underway next year ... the centennial of the U.S. acquisition of the islands. He looks forward to our entering the new millennium having concluded the debate and implementing the will of the Puerto Rican people.
To facilitate enactment of the law that is needed, the Administration offers the following comments on H.R. 856 and urges the Committee to consider them.
The bill would provide Commonwealth, nationhood, and statehood options.
Democratic principles require that the expressed aspirations of Puerto Ricans be central to the development of the options (which must also be viable from the Federal perspective). The President regards this as an integral part of a sound process.
We, therefore, view Chairman Young's agreement with Senior Democrat Miller to give Puerto Rico's major political parties until March 3lst to submit alternatives to the options in the bill and to seriously consider their proposals as a very constructive step and we appreciate the role that Governor Rosselló and Resident Commissioner Romero-Barceló also played in it being taken. The parties are each recognized as the leading advocates for one of the three status formulas that substantial numbers of Puerto Ricans have supported: Commonwealth, statehood, and independence.
The Administration encouraged such an outreach and strongly supports the procedure that was agreed upon. Consequently, we would like to work with the Committee in fashioning the options -- considering the proposals of the parties and others as well as U.S. necessities -- after the parties have had this opportunity to advance their ideas to you.
The bill would ostensibly require --
1) a referendum before 1999 and
2) further referenda at least every four years thereafter in the event of no option obtaining a majority; a majority for the Commonwealth option; or Puerto Rican rejection of Federal status implementation legislation.
Rather than suggest a mandate, it would be more appropriate to simply provide a process for and facilitate a status choice. This is the approach that was used in past legislation on the islands political development. (Public Laws 81-600 and 82~47, which helped establish the governing arrangement for Puerto Rico, including the Commonwealth Constitution and the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act; Public Law 88-271, which established a joint Federal-Commonwealth status commission; and the status process bill that the House passed in 1990.)
We also suggest giving the Government of Puerto Rico flexibility on calling additional votes. Further votes might not be desired by Puerto Ricans so often and in such a case the call for revoting at least every four years would be a disruptive burden. Additionally, if Puerto Ricans were to reject Federal statehood or nationhood implementation legislation, it probably would not make sense for them to vote again absent further Federal action.
Transition and Implementation
The bill would call for a plan for a transition of at least 10 years in the event of a majority for either nationhood or statehood.
Since the measures that would need to be taken have not been specified and would change from time to time, we recommend that the length of a transition be set in the transition plan prepared in consultation with Puerto Rico's leaders. Congress would still have its say over the duration since the plan would require congressional (as well as Puerto Rican) approval.
A more fundamental problem is that H.R. 856 would require that a law be enacted at the end of a "transition" to nationhood or statehood -- in addition to beforehand -- in order to actually implement a status change.
The Administration favors prompt, final action on implementing a status change if chosen by Puerto Ricans. The purpose of a transition should be to permit significantly different policies to be implemented on an orderly basis. A further decision and, possibly, further requirements at the end of a "transition" could make the period only a partial transition or, even, overturn, the status choice. Rejection or new conditions after substantial fiscal and program changes had been made could be very problematic. The Federal Government and Puerto Ricans should have greater assurance of actually implementing a status before heading down the path toward it.
English Language Provisions
The bill includes several provisions regarding the use of the English language that should be mentioned .
One would establish a policy of English being the "common language of mutual understanding" in the United States.
Such a policy is unnecessary and could create divisiveness. We are also concerned that it could be used to question statehood as an option for Puerto Rico. The language that most of the islands' U.S. citizens have always used should not be a barrier to full participation in the Federal system if they want it.
Another provision would call for measures to enhance English education in public schools in a transition to statehood.
We understand it to intend measures that would supplement educational practice in the islands, consistent with local control of schools.
Finally, there are provisions that suggest an intent to make English the official language of the Federal Government and a need to use English -- including that Puerto Ricans should use it "to enjoy the full rights and benefits of their citizenship"
As you may be aware, the President indicated his intent to veto a bill last year, H.R. 123, that would have required the Federal Government to conduct most of its official business in English only. Legislative statements on a need to use English could be used by others to promote goals which are disharmonizing and diversionary. They could also unduly influence the Puerto Rico status decision. And, of course, Puerto Ricans should be able to continue to enjoy their citizenship rights and benefits whether they continue to use Spanish or not.
The bill would also make some other statements or suggestions which would not be part of the procedure for resolving the status issue that are problematic. These provisions relate to the current situation and have contributed to controversy about the bill in Puerto Rico.
History has given us the conflicting facts and ambiguities that have fueled the islands' divisive and distracting status debate for decades. Rather than litigate them now when there is a general consensus on what needs to be done to resolve the dilemma, we think it would be more advisable to simply concentrate on resolving it: establishing a process that includes --
1) providing the people of Puerto Rico with options that can end the debate and
2) providing for Federal action on implementing their choice.
Mr. Chairman, it is time for the Federal Government to meet its responsibilities regarding the Puerto Rico status question and provide such a process; Puerto Ricans have been asking for the United States to act for years. H.R. 856 provides a basis from which to act in the House. Working together and with others, we can ensure that our great country lives up to its ideals in the case of our 3.7 million fellow citizens in the islands. It is of vital importance to their future that we do.
The Administration's priority is to get a law enacted that will make it possible to finally and fairly resolve the situation. We will be flexible within the principles that the -President has espoused so that agreement can be reached. All of us who are committed to settling the issue should not let this opportunity pass.