Timing is everything: As anger brews over recent FBI activity in Puerto Rico, Congress is generating the latest proposals for resolving the island’s political status—spurred by a presidential panel that in December found (news flash!) that the island’s status needed resolving. A Senate proposal (introduced by North Carolina’s Richard Burr and backed by Ted Kennedy, Trent Lott, and New Jersey’s Robert Menendez) calls for a constitutional convention on the island, at which delegates would develop a proposal for continued commonwealth status, statehood or independence. Congress would have to approve the plan before it went to Puerto Rican voters.
Both hurdles are significant. If the convention backed statehood or independence, there’s no guarantee that Congress would green-light either. And in three plebescites in the past 40 years, Puerto Ricans have not voted to change their status.
But those results were distorted by the number of choices. In 1993, commonwealth (49 percent) trumped statehood (46 percent) and independence (4 percent); in other words, most people voted to change the status but because they split over the options, the status quo prevailed. In 1998, 46 percent of voters backed statehood. Only one-half of one percent supported the status quo. But because 50 percent chose the bizarre option “none of the above,” the status quo prevailed.
That’s why a House proposal by Rep. Jose Serrano and Puerto Rico’s rep to Capitol Hill Luis Fortuno is interesting. It calls for two separate votes. The first, in 2007, would offer voters only two choices: whether to continue as a territory or become something else. If territorial status wins, the bill calls for regular re-votes to see if opinions change. If nonterritorial status wins, the bill sets up a second vote in 2009 to choose between statehood and independence.
The Serrano bill flips the dynamic: While earlier plebscites were structured to favor the current status, this proposal seems tailored to effect some change in the island’s relationship to the United States.
The first test for the proposal, of course, will be in the House. The bill will face steep odds, if it even gets an up-or-down vote.