New House GOP Chairman Open to Statehood

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New House GOP Chairman Open to Statehood

It became clear yesterday that the new Republican chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives committee with lead responsibility for the political status of territories is open to statehood for Puerto Rico.

Rob Bishop (Utah) was quoted as saying that he would not be opposed if a majority of the committee wanted to pass a bill sponsored by 71 members of the House led by Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner that would make the territory a State January 1st, 2021 if Puerto Rico votes for the status a second time.

He also opposed the idea that the use of Spanish in the territory should be a bar to equality for Puerto Rico within the nation. The language used by a State is a matter that society can manage without the Federal government imposing a mandate, the Natural Resources Committee Chairman explained.

In an interview with El Nuevo Dia newspaper, Bishop even more strongly rejected opposing statehood because of a guess that a State of Puerto Rico would elect more Democrats than Republicans, allowing that some Republicans may have done so.

That is “not a valid reason,” he stressed, “the potential support for a party should never be the reason for being for or against a petition for statehood.”

He also implied that how Puerto Rico would actually vote as a State is uncertain, recalling Utah’s case.

In that regard, he suggested developing a Republican and Democratic party system in Puerto Rico to advance statehood, noting that doing so helped obtain statehood for Utah. Before, the territory of Utah’s politics were conducted between Mormon and non-Mormon parties.

Puerto Rico’s politics are conducted among three parties. One champions statehood. Another independence. The third, the “commonwealth” party, is split between one faction that wants Puerto Rico to remain a territory but be exempt from some of the Congress’ powers to govern territories and another wing that wants Puerto Rico to become a nation in an association with the U.S. but with the continued granting of U.S. citizenship.

Republican and Democratic parties in Puerto Rico only exist to elect delegates to presidential nominating conventions of their national parties.

Bishop could not explain why most Republicans in the House had opposed Puerto Rico status choice bills in the past but he pointed out that the Republican Party has officially endorsed statehood if Puerto Ricans want the status, as did President George H.W. Bush. (He could also have cited President Ford, not to mention the public statements of support of Presidents Nixon and Reagan.)

The House member did offer, however, that, “Sometimes there are side issues that impact your vote. I think that could have influenced the voting of some” Republicans on status choice bills in 1998 and 2010.

As interviewer Jose Delgado recalled, Bishop recently revealed that he thinks he would now vote in favor of the status choice bill that passed the Democratic controlled House in 2010, although he voted against it then.

The notion that Puerto Rico would continue to have the representation in international athletic events under statehood that it has as a territory “sounds strange,” he further observed.

Puerto Rico’s “commonwealth” party has gotten some nativists in the States to oppose statehood for the territory because most U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico continue to use Spanish. The party has also caused some Republicans in Congress to be concerned by ‘commonwealther’ claims that the territory would elect more Democrats than Republicans as a State.

The party has additionally tried to generate opposition to statehood by asserting that Puerto Rico would maintain its territorial international athletic teams under statehood.

Bishop disclosed that he had not decided whether he would personally support the statehood bill sponsored by Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, the President of Puerto Rico’s statehood political party, but emphasized that he wants Committee members to decide for themselves. He would not push them one way or the other on the bill or on other bills on the status issue.

He thought that it would be appropriate, however, to have a hearing on the statehood bill but he stressed that decisions on a hearing are up to Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Subcommittee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), a bill sponsor.

Supports Federal Plebiscite Law

The full Committee Chairman could not predict what the Congress would do if Puerto Ricans voted for statehood or nationhood under a Federal law enacted in January of last year but he expressed support for the law. Under it, the Federal government has allocated funds for a plebiscite in Puerto Rico on an option or options that can resolve the question of the territory’s ultimate status.

The option(s) are to be proposed by Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission but must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Commission, although headed by an appointee of the governor, also has one representative each from all three of the territory’s political parties.

The law was enacted because the “commonwealth” party governor and legislative majorities of Puerto Rico very narrowly elected in November 2012 lobbied against Federal action on statehood based on a plebiscite held under local law along with the elections. Bishop recognized in the interview, that the current status, often misleadingly called “commonwealth” after a word in the official name of the insular government but really territory status, “was defeated” and “about 60% voted for statehood” among the alternatives.

He felt, however, that whether the views of those who voted on the question of continuing the current territory status but not on the alternatives to it should be considered is a “philosophical debate. It is a little gray. I recognize both sides … I do not want to engage in a debate about what Puerto Ricans are saying internally.”

“Commonwealth” party Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla supported the losing territory status in the plebiscite held at the time of his narrow election.

Garcia and ‘commonwealthers’ in the Legislative Assembly dispute the plebiscite because it did not include the party’s status proposal, although the Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations and congressional committee leaders of both national parties have rejected the proposal as impossible for constitutional and other reasons.

Under the ‘developed commonwealth’ plan, Puerto Rico would be a nation but the U.S. would be permanently bound to it and to the following terms of an association: U.S. laws would apply but Puerto Rico could nullify the application. U.S. courts would have jurisdiction but Puerto Rico could limit the jurisdiction. Puerto Rico could enter into international agreements as if it were a sovereign nation. All current assistance to Puerto Ricans would continue and the Commonwealth government would get a new subsidy. U.S. citizenship would continue to be granted.

The Federal plebiscite law requires U.S. Justice Department approval of status options for the plebiscite to ensure that Puerto Ricans are not asked to vote on proposals that cannot be status options.

Hasn’t Considered “Commonwealth”

The new Natural Resources Committee Chairman did not know what the options for the plebiscite provided for by the 2014 Federal law should be. He thought, however, that the current territory status, which got 46% of the vote in the 2012 plebiscite should not be ruled out as a possibility in a future vote even though it lost because public sentiment can change.

Bishop has also not considered the “commonwealth” party’s status proposals, according to the El Nuevo Dia report.

Puerto Rican Initiative

Although he did not find the 2012 plebiscite petition for statehood to be conclusive, Bishop put himself squarely behind Puerto Ricans being able to decide the territory’s ultimate status. “One wants Puerto Ricans to decide the matter and that they exercise their self-determination,” he declared.

He considered the decision to be an “internal” one for Puerto Ricans, however.

In part, this was because he does not want the Committee’s actions on the status issue “to become a soccer ball … in the elections in Puerto Rico and the Committee to become the subject of controversy.”

Wants to Help Gas Pipeline

Bishop, who became Chairman in January, disclosed that he had no plans regarding Puerto Rico other than to help the insular government get Environmental Protection Agency approval for an undersea pipeline to move liquid natural gas from a planned offshore receiving terminal to a power plant on land.

He would like it if another member of the House sponsored a bill to help and for there to be a hearing such a bill. He noted, however, that that territorial government would need to have a good power system plan for the bill to advance.

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