Political Status of Puerto Rico: Options for Congress
Political Status of Puerto Rico:
Options for Congress
Updated May 29, 2008
Specialist in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
R. Sam Garrett
Analyst in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
Political Status of Puerto Rico: Options for Congress
The United States acquired the islands of Puerto Rico in 1898 after the Spanish-
American War. In 1950, Congress enacted legislation (P.L. 81-600) authorizing Puerto
Rico to hold a constitutional convention, and in 1952, the people of Puerto Rico
ratified a constitution establishing a republican form of government for the islands.
After being approved by Congress and the President in July 1952 and thus given force
under federal law (P.L. 82-447), the new constitution went into effect on July 25, 1952.
Puerto Rico is subject to congressional jurisdiction under the Territorial Clause
of the U.S. Constitution. Over the past century, Congress passed legislation governing
Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States. For example, residents of Puerto
Rico hold U.S. citizenship, serve in the military, are subject to federal laws, and are
represented in the House of Representatives by a Resident Commissioner elected to a
four-year term. Although residents participate in the presidential nominating process,
they do not vote in the general election. Puerto Ricans pay federal tax on income
derived from sources in the United States, but they pay no federal tax on income
earned in Puerto Rico. In the 110th Congress, the Resident Commissioner may vote in
legislative committees and in the Committee of the Whole.
Elements of the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship have been and continue to be
matters of debate. Some contend that the current political status of Puerto Rico,
perhaps with enhancements, remains a viable option. Others argue that commonwealth
status is or should be only a temporary fix to be resolved in favor of other solutions
considered permanent, non-colonial, and non-territorial. Some contend that if
independence is achieved, the close relationship with the United States could be
continued through compact negotiations with the federal government. One element
apparently shared by all discussants is that the people of Puerto Rico seek to attain full,
democratic representation, notably through voting rights on national legislation to
which they are subject.
Recent reports issued by a presidential task force on the status of Puerto Rico assert
that there are only three constitutionally recognized options for the islands: independence,
statehood, or continuation as a territory. In response to the 2005 version of the task forceth
report, legislation before the 109 Congress would have addressed the status question
through two different mechanisms — plebiscites or a constitutional convention.th
Congress took no legislative action on those bills. To date in the 110 Congress, three
bills regarding Puerto Rico’s political status have been introduced. H.R. 900
authorizes a plebiscite in which Puerto Ricans would vote on continuing the status quo
or proceeding toward non-territorial status. H.R. 1230 authorizes a constitutional
convention and referendum in Puerto Rico to consider status options. The House
Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the bills in October 2007. At that
time, the Committee ordered reported favorably an amended version of H.R. 900,
which combined elements of the two House bills. (The written report, H.Rept. 110-
1936 which would take another approach: a single plebiscite in which voters would
choose between the status quo, independence, free association, or statehood. The
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has not acted on that bill.
This CRS report will be updated as events warrant.
Early Governance of Puerto Rico.............................6
Development of the Constitution of Puerto Rico..................7
Federal Relations Act.......................................8
Supreme Court Decisions...................................9
Status Debates and Votes, 1952-1998.............................10
1998 Action in the 105 Congress............................12
Federal Activity After 1998.....................................13
Executive Branch Action in 2000............................14
2004 General Elections in Puerto Rico........................14
President’s Task Force Report, December 2005.................16
President’s Task Force Report, December 2007.................17
Issues of Debate on Political Status...............................18
Definitions of Status Options................................24
Appendix A: Brief Chronology of Status Events Since 1898...............30
Appendix B: Puerto Rico Status Votes in Plebiscites and Referenda,
Appendix C: Congressional Activity on Puerto Rico’s Political Status,
Appendix D: Summary of Legislative Debates and Actions................46
List of Tables
Table C-1. Status Legislation, 1989-1998: Summary Information...........35
Table C-2. Status Legislation, 1989-1998: Procedures....................36
Table C-3. Status Legislation, 1989-1998: Options......................39
Table C-4. Status Legislation, 1989-1998: Substantive Issues.............42
Political Status of Puerto Rico:
Options for Congress
Developments since 2005 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as well as Washington,
DC, have signaled some renewed congressional attention to the political status of the
Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and its relationship with the United States.1
110th Congress. In the 110th Congress, two House bills and one Senate bill
addressing Puerto Rico’s political status have been introduced. As with bills
introduced in the 109th Congress, the House legislation (H.R. 900 and H.R. 1230)
originally offered two alternatives for addressing Puerto Rico’s political status:
plebiscites (popular votes) or a constitutional convention. During March and April
2007, the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs held hearings on the two bills; the
House Natural Resources Committee marked up H.R. 900 in October 2007. It was
reported favorably. The Senate bill proposes a third option, a plebiscite, but in a
different format and with different options, than proposed by H.R. 900. No action
has occurred on the Senate bill to date. This section summarizes the pending
The Two House Bills Prior to Committee Markup. On February 7, 2007,
Representative Serrano introduced H.R. 900, which, as originally introduced, would
have authorized two plebiscites in Puerto Rico. The first plebiscite, to be conducted
“not later than December 31, 2009,” would have asked voters to choose between two
options: (1) continuing “the existing form of territorial status as defined by the
Constitution, basic laws, and policies of the United States,” or (2) pursuit of “a path2
toward a constitutionally viable permanent nonterritorial status.” If the majority of
voters approved a change, the second plebiscite would have determined whether
independence (including free association, discussed later in this report) or statehood
was preferred. As introduced, H.R. 900 would have allowed U.S. citizens born in
Puerto Rico, but not necessarily living there today, to participate in the plebiscites.
Voter eligibility would be determined by the Puerto Rico State Elections
Representative Velázquez introduced H.R. 1230 on February 28, 2007. H.R.
the bill proposes a constitutional convention, to be held in Puerto Rico, to consider
1 CRS specialist Keith Bea served as the original author of this report. CRS analyst R. Sam
Garrett revised this version of the report based on developments in the 109th and 110th
2 H.R. 900, sec. 3.
three options: (1) “a new or modified Commonwealth status,” (2) statehood, or (3)
independence. The convention, charged with formulating a “self-determination
option” (proposal), “must be based on the sovereignty of the People of Puerto Rico
and not subject to the plenary powers of the territory clause of the Constitution of the
United States.”3 The convention’s proposal would then be presented to “the People
of Puerto Rico” (who would also have elected the convention delegates) in a
referendum. If a majority of voters approve the proposal, Congress “shall” enact a
joint resolution approving the proposal. Any congressional changes to the proposal
would be submitted to Puerto Rican voters for another referendum before the
provisions took effect. The legislation specifies that voters participating in the
referenda may include resident Puerto Ricans and non-residents “who are not legal
residents of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and who are either born in Puerto
Rico or have one parent born in Puerto Rico.”4
The October 2007 House Natural Resources Committee Markup. On
October 23, 2007, the House Natural Resources Committee marked up H.R. 900.
During that session, portions of the original versions of H.R. 900 and H.R. 1230 were
combined in the reported version of H.R. 900, which was sent favorably to the full
House by voice vote. (The written report, H.Rept. 110-597, was not issued until
April 2008.) Unlike the original version of H.R. 900, which called for two
plebiscites (but only if voters in the first plebiscite chose a change in status), an
amendment in the nature of a substitute to H.R. 900 reported by the full committee
proposes only one plebiscite, in which voters would consider whether Puerto Rico
should pursue the status quo or another political relationship with the United States.
Also, the reported version of H.R. 900 modifies the threshold question. In the
original version of the bill, the status quo is described as “the existing form of
territorial status as defined by the Constitution, basic laws, and policies of the United
States.”5 By contrast, the reported version frames the status quo as Puerto Rico
“continu[ing] to have its present form of territorial status and relationship with the
United States.”6 As with the original version of the bill, the reported version of H.R.
900 would frame the second political status option in the first plebiscite as pursuing
“constitutionally viable permanent nonterritorial status.”7
The original and reported versions of H.R. 900 also propose different steps
following the initial plebiscite. Chairman Rahall’s amendment in the nature of a
substitute would have required the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico Status
(discussed below) to “submit recommendations for appropriate action” to Congress
if voters in the initial plebiscite had chosen a political relationship different from
3 H.R. 1230, sec. 2.
4 H.R. 1230, sec. 2.
5 H.R. 900 as originally introduced, Sec. 3. Emphasis added.
6 H.R. 900 amendment in the nature of a substitute (Rahall), reported October 23, 2007, Sec.
7 H.R. 900 as originally introduced, Sec. 3 and ibid, respectively. There are nonetheless
slight wording and punctuation differences in the text surrounding the cited passage in each
version of the bill.
commonwealth (the non-status quo option).8 However, the committee adopted an
amendment, sponsored by Representative Christensen, to the Rahall language. The
Christensen amendment would incorporate into H.R. 900 language taken from H.R.
1230. Under the Christensen amendment, if a majority of voters chose a change in
political status in the first plebiscite, Congress would recognize “the inherent
authority of the People of Puerto Rico” to either call a constitutional convention or
conduct another plebiscite. Other elements of the original and reported versions of
H.R. 900 (e.g., those addressing voter eligibility) are similar or identical.
To summarize, the House Natural Resources Committee reported favorably
H.R. 900, as amended, by voice vote. The reported version of the bill contains
elements from the original versions of H.R. 900 and H.R. 1230. Most notably, the
reported version of the bill would require the Puerto Rico State Elections
Commission to hold a plebiscite on Puerto Rico status by December 31, 2009. In
that plebiscite, voters would choose between the status quo and a “constitutionally
viable permanent non-territorial status.” If voters chose the latter option (per the
Christensen amendment), the “People of Puerto Rico” could either call a
constitutional convention or hold a second plebiscite to consider how to proceed. In
either case, Congress would have final say over the island’s status. Although the
reported version of H.R. 900 represents a compromise (generally supported at the
markup) between the approaches originally proposed in H.R. 900 and H.R. 1230,
some Members continue to have reservations. For example, Representative
Velázquez, sponsor of H.R. 1230, has called the reported bill insufficiently
democratic and transparent.9 On the other hand, Representative Fortuño, a co-
sponsor of H.R. 900, characterized the reported version of the bill as less than ideal,
but ultimately a positive step in the status debate.
The Senate Bill. Senator Salazar introduced S. 1936 on August 2, 2007. The
bill (which shares the “Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007” title with H.R. 900, but
differs substantially from that bill), proposes a single plebiscite in which voters
would choose from four status options on one ballot. S. 1936 proposes that by
September 30, 2008, the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission “shall” conduct a
plebiscite in which voters would choose between the status quo, independence, free
association, or statehood. As with the House bills, ballot language and the placement
of various options on the ballot could affect the results. The status quo, described as
a continuation of Puerto Rico’s “present status and relationship with the United
States,” would be listed first. Independence would be listed second; no definition of
“independence” is provided. Free association — which generally implies negotiated
legal, economic, or defense ties between sovereign nations — would be listed third
and described as “seek[ing] nationhood in free association with the United States.”10
Finally, statehood (without additional definition), would be listed fourth. No
committee activity has occurred on S. 1936.
8 H.R. 900 amendment in the nature of a substitute (Rahall), reported October 23, 2007, Sec.
9 Honorable Nydia M. Velázquez, “Velázquez Criticizes Committee Approval of Puerto
Rico Bill,” press release, October 23, 2007.
10 S. 1936, sec. 3.
Comparing the Reported H.R. 900 and S. 1936. Both the reported
version of H.R. 900 and S. 1936 as introduced propose a reconsideration of the
Puerto Rico status issue through a popular vote. Whereas S. 1936 presents four
status options as distinct choices, the reported version of H.R. 900 simply asks voters
to choose between the status quo and a change in political status. Although the
House bill does not specify status options if voters chose a change, recent reports by
a presidential task force (discussed below) determined that constitutional status
options were limited to the status quo, independence (including free association), or
statehood. As is noted below, the conclusions reached by the task force have been
controversial. The two bills also differ regarding voter-eligibility requirements,
funding, and other administrative provisions.
109th Congress. Bills introduced in the 109th Congress were largely similar
to the bills introduced in the 110th Congress. Four bills addressing Puerto Rico’s
political status were introduced during the 109th Congress. These bills also offered
two different approaches to the political status issue. On February 16, 2006, Senator
Burr introduced legislation (S. 2304) that recognized the right of the government of
Puerto Rico to call a constitutional convention and authorized such action.
According to the legislation, delegates would have considered three proposals that
could have been submitted to Congress: (1) development of a new “compact of
association” with the United States; (2) admission of Puerto Rico as the 51st state, or
(3) establishment of an independent nation. The convention’s proposal would then
have been presented to Congress. If approved, Puerto Ricans would have voted on
the proposal in a referendum. Representative Duncan introduced an identical bill
(H.R. 4963) in the House on March 15, 2006. S. 2304 and H.R. 4936 were similar
to H.R. 1230, introduced in the 110th Congress, although there are some differences
between the 110th and 109th Congress bills. For example, H.R. 1230 places the
popular referendum before congressional approval of the convention proposal,
whereas S. 2304 and H.R. 4963 called for the referendum to be held after
congressional approval of the convention’s proposal.
On March 2, 2006, Representative Fortuño, Resident Commissioner for Puerto
Rico, introduced legislation (H.R. 4867) to authorize two status plebiscites in Puerto
Rico. This legislation is essentially the same as H.R. 900, introduced by
Representative Serrano during the 110th Congress. Representatives Fortuño and
Serrano were co-sponsors of H.R. 4867.
On April 26, 2006, Senator Martinez introduced S. 2661, which also proposed
a plebiscite, but differed significantly from H.R. 4867. S. 2661 proposed only one
plebiscite, in which voters would have been presented with two choices: continued
status “as a territory of the United States,” or pursuit of “a path toward permanent
nonterritorial status.” The bill did not specify what would have constituted
“permanent nonterritorial status.”
On November 15, 2006, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
held a hearing on the 2005 report from the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s
Status. Witnesses at the hearing noted continued disagreement in Washington and
Puerto Rico about Puerto Rico’s current and future political status. Various Senators
and witnesses also debated whether Puerto Rico’s political status should be revisited,
and if so, which of the legislative options, if any, proposed during the 109th Congress
should be followed. The 109th Congress took no additional action on Puerto Rican
Non-Congressional Developments. A catalyst for the legislative activity
described above was the release in December 2005 of the presidential task force’s
report.11 In the report, the task force asserted unambiguously that Puerto Rico,
although styled a “commonwealth,” is a territory of the United States and is subject
to Congress under the Territorial Clause of the U. S. Constitution.12 It also asserted
that the Constitution recognizes only two non-territorial options for Puerto Rico:
either incorporation as a state into the Union or independence. The task force
recommended that the people of Puerto Rico be given the opportunity through a
plebiscite to say whether they want to continue their territorial status. Were Puerto
Ricans to reject territorial status, the task force recommended a second plebiscite
through which Puerto Ricans would choose between the two constitutionally viable
options of statehood and independence. The task force recommendations have been
rejected by the current governor of Puerto Rico, who condemned the report and
rejected “any efforts to turn the task force’s recommendations into Congressional
legislation.”13 The governor, among others, argued that the “Commonwealth” or, in
some cases, “Enhanced Commonwealth” constructs are legitimate non-territorial
options under U. S. constitutional and statutory law.
In San Juan, during March and April 2005, the Puerto Rican Legislative
Assembly debated and approved a bill “demanding” that the President and Congress
“express their commitment to respond” to calls to resolve the issues of the political14
status of Puerto Rico. Had the governor not vetoed the bill, on April 10, 2005, the
legislation would have authorized a referendum to be held on July 10, 2005.
Subsequently, the Legislative Assembly approved a concurrent resolution that
petitions Congress and the President to establish a method by which the citizens of
11 U.S. President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, Report by the President’s Task
Force on Puerto Rico’s Status (Washington: December 2005), available at
[http://www.house.gov/fortuno/pdf/PuertoRicoBooklet.pdf], visited March 2, 2007. The
task force was created by President Clinton (E.O. 13183, dated December 23, 2000) and
reconfigured by President Bush (E.O. 13209, dated April 30, 2001, and E.O. 13319, dated
December 3, 2003). The task force was to “ensure official attention to and facilitate action
on” status proposals and advise the President and Congress on such matters.
12 “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations
respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this
Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any
particular State.” U.S. Const., Art. IV, Sec. 3, cl. 2.
13 Letter from Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, January 24, 2006, available at
March 2, 2007.
14 Puerto Rico, Legislative Assembly, Substitute House Bill 1014, 1054, and 1058, Sec. 2:
“We, the People of Puerto Rico, in the exercise of our right to self-determination, demand
[exijimos] from the President and the Congress of the United States of America, before
December 31, 2006, an expression of their commitment to respond to the claim of the
People of Puerto Rico to solve our problem of political status from among fully democratic
options of a non-colonial and non-territorial nature.”
Puerto Rico can select a relationship with the United States “from among fully
democratic, non-territorial and non-colonial alternatives.”15 On a related note, in
August 2006, delegates to Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party (NPP) convention
adopted a resolution (dubbed the”Tennessee Plan” for the method by which
Tennessee and six other states joined the Union; discussed briefly later in this report),
reportedly calling for Puerto Ricans to initiate a statehood application rather than
waiting for an invitation from Congress.16
In light of these developments, this CRS report discusses how the relationship
between Puerto Rico and the United States has evolved since Puerto Rico became a
United States possession following the Spanish American War. The report analyzes
some of the policy issues that may emerge were Congress to reopen debate on the
status of Puerto Rico.
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which lies approximately 1,000 miles
southeast of Florida, comprises four larger islands (Culebra, Mona, Vieques, and
Puerto Rico) and numerous smaller islands in the Greater Antilles. The total land
area of the islands of Puerto Rico is roughly 3,500 square miles. The United States
has exercised sovereignty over Puerto Rico since 1898, when Spain ceded the islands
to the United States following the Spanish-American War. Refer to Appendix A of
this report for summary information on important events in the governance of Puerto
Rico by the United States.
Early Governance of Puerto Rico. Between 1898 and 1900, U.S. military
commanders governed Puerto Rico. In 1900, Congress passed the Foraker Act, the
territory’s first organic act, which established a civil government headed by a
presidential appointee.17 Seven years later, Congress passed the Jones Act of 1917,
which extended U.S. citizenship to residents of Puerto Rico, established a bill of
rights for the territory, provided for a popularly elected Senate, and authorized the
election of a Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico to the United States
Congress.18 In 1947, Congress provided for the popular election of the islands’
15 Puerto Rico, Legislative Assembly, H. Conc. R. 25.
16 See Maria Miranda, “Insults overwhelm calls for unity at NPP convention,” San Juan
Star, August 21, 2006, p. 9; and Eva Llorens Velez, “NPP to vote on new plan to win
statehood,” San Juan Star, August 19, 2006, p. 6.
17 P.L. 56-191, 31 Stat. 77.
18 P.L. 64-368, 39 Stat. 951. An earlier Jones Act, that of 1916 and entitled the “Philippine
Autonomy Act,” dealt with the political status of the Philippines, which the United States
had also acquired after the Spanish-American War. In 1934, Congress amended the act in
preparation for full Philippine independence; and in 1946 the Philippines became an
governor.19 In 1950, Congress, the President, and the people of Puerto Rico began a
process that led to the Puerto Rican constitution, which is in effect today.20
Development of the Constitution of Puerto Rico. Development of thest
Puerto Rican constitution proceeded in a series of steps. First, in 1950, the 81
Congress enacted and President Truman approved legislation that authorized a
constitutional convention to develop the first constitution for the governance of
Puerto Rico.21 Second, voters approved the initiation of the process through a
referendum. Third, voters elected delegates to the constitutional convention in 1951,
and the delegates worked throughout the year to draft that document. Fourth, the
product of the convention — a constitution that established the structure and
operation of government in the islands — was approved by the voters of Puerto22nd
Rico and submitted to Congress and President Truman early in 1952. Fifth, the 82
Congress modified the constitution and approved the amended version in July 1952.23
The Puerto Rican constitutional convention approved the modified document shortly
thereafter,24 and Governor Luis Muñoz Marin declared the constitution in effect on
July 25, 1952.
The constitution of 1952 establishes a republican form of government and a bill
of rights, sets out provisions related to municipal government (including finance and
revenue mechanisms), and outlines the following framework for governance of the
!The Legislative Assembly consists of a 27-member Senate and a 51-
member House of Representatives.
!The executive branch is headed by a governor elected to a four-year
term. The governor makes executive appointments (with the advice
19 P.L. 80-362, 61 Stat. 770.
20 For a chronology of the entities and authorities that have governed Puerto Rico since
21 P.L. 81-600, 64 Stat. 319, 48 U.S.C. 731b. “Fully recognizing the principle of government
by consent, sections 731b to 731e of this title are adopted in the nature of a compact so that
the people of Puerto Rico may organize a government pursuant to a constitution of their own
22 By a vote of approximately 387,000 yeas (76%) to 119,000 nays (24%), Puerto Ricans
strongly supported the process through which the constitution was developed. Support for
the resulting constitution was even stronger — 375,000 yeas (82%) to 83,000 nays (18%).
23 P.L. 82-447, 66 Stat. 327, 48 U.S.C. 731d.
24 According to one commission report, the three changes required by Congress to the
Commonwealth Constitution “were made by Puerto Rico and approved by the Puerto Rican
Constitutional Convention and later by another referendum.” See United States-Puerto Rico
Commission on the Status of Puerto Rico, Status of Puerto Rico (Washington: GPO, 1966),
and consent of the Senate),25 serves as commander-in-chief of the
militia, and exercises emergency powers.
!The authority for the judicial branch is vested in a Supreme Court (a
chief justice and six associate justices), and other courts established
by the Legislative Assembly. The Supreme Court adopts rules for
other courts, and the chief justice directs the administration of the
The constitution of 1952 modified aspects of civil government for the islands;
but neither it nor the related public laws approved by Congress in 1950 and 1952
changed the fundamental relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.27
That relationship is determined by the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution.28
Nonetheless, the relationship — often called the status issue — continues to be the
subject of recurring debate in Puerto Rico. The status debate is shaped by varying
understandings of the Federal Relations Act, international concerns, and rulings by
the Supreme Court.
Federal Relations Act. P.L. 81-600, which authorized the process that led
to the constitution of 1952, also continued the provisions of the Jones Act of 1917
that govern the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. That set of
provisions is commonly referred to as the Federal Relations Act (FRA).29 The FRA
deals with matters that are subject to congressional authority and established pursuant
25 The appointment of Secretary of State requires the advice and consent of the House of
Representatives as well as the Senate.
26 A United States district court has operated in Puerto Rico since 1900, when it was
established by the Foraker Act. P.L. 56-191, section 34, 56 Stat. 84.
27 P.L. 81-600 and P.L. 82-447, respectively. For example, the Senate committee report
accompanying S. 3336, the bill that became P.L. 81-600, was unambiguous on this point:
“This measure is designed to complete the full measure of local self-government in the
islands by enabling the 2¼ million American citizens there to express their will and to create
their own territorial government. [Emphasis added]. S.Rept. 81-1779, p. 2. “This measure
would not change Puerto Rico’s fundamental political, social, and economic relationship to
the United States.” Ibid., p. 3. “S. 3336 is not a statehood bill. Nor is it an independence bill.
It does not commit the Congress, either expressly or by implication to take any action
whatever in respect to either. It in no way precludes future determination by future
Congresses of the political status of Puerto Rico.” Ibid., p. 4. In this regard, former Attorney
General Richard Thornburgh said in an interview, “Although Congress made approval of
the local constitution by referendum a condition of its approval of the constitution, the local
vote was given legal effect only by federal law, and the constitution entered into force only
as allowed by federal law. Consequently, the local constitution does not create or define a
separate constitutional sovereignty or vested right to the current status for the residents of
the territory or the local government.” Puerto Rico Herald, October 4, 2002.
28 U.S. Const., Art. IV, Sec. 3, cl. 2
29 48 U.S.C. 731. The FRA includes provisions originally contained in the Organic Act of 1917
(39 Stat. 951) that established a civil government in Puerto Rico. The act of 1917 is referred to
as the Jones Act. The Jones Act of 1917 was the second organic act Congress approved for
Puerto Rico; the first was the Foraker Act approved by Congress in 1900 (31 Stat. 77).
to federal legislation, such as the citizenship status of residents, civil rights, trade and
commerce, taxation and public finance, the administration of public lands controlled
by the federal government, the application of federal law over navigable waters,
congressional representation, and the judicial process.
Although the constitution of 1952 provides for self-government by Puerto
Ricans, Congress ceded none of its own plenary authority over the islands. From
time to time Congress has reasserted that authority by enacting legislation pertinent
to local matters. For example, Congress amended FRA provisions dealing with local
urban development and slum clearance authority.30
International Attention. International attention to the political status of
Puerto Rico introduced another element into consideration of the islands’ relationship
to the United States. From 1946 through 1953, the United States submitted annual
reports to the United Nations on its territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands,
Guam, and American Samoa. The General Assembly of the United Nations agreed,
in 1953, to terminate the requirement for annual reports after considering statements
by Puerto Rican and federal officials on the establishment of the Commonwealth.31
This agreement, however, has not resolved the issue for all. As summarized by one
Few domestic issues have consistently generated as much international debate
as that of Puerto Rico. It has been on the U.N. agenda since representatives of
the Puerto Rican Nationalist party went to San Francisco for the signing of the
U.N. Charter in June, 1945. Although the U.S. government may have convinced
itself that it removed Puerto Rico from the international agenda in 1953, few32
others are convinced.
Supreme Court Decisions. Federal court decisions also influenced the
debate over status. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Supreme Court issued33
a series of decisions generally referred to as the Insular Cases. In them, the Court
30 The FRA authorizes the government of Puerto Rico to establish authorities for slum
clearance and urban redevelopment but prohibits such entities from imposing taxes, and it
authorizes the legislature of Puerto Rico to empower such authorities to undertake urban
renewal projects. Congress amended this provision in 1955, subsequent to implementation
of the constitution of 1952. See 48 U.S.C. 910, 910a. The FRA also authorizes the Puerto
Rican legislature to enable such authorities to issue financial instruments (bonds or other
obligations) to accomplish slum clearance and urban redevelopment objectives. See 48
31 United Nations General Assembly, “Cessation of the Transmission of Information Under
Article 73e of the Charter in Respect of Puerto Rico,” in Resolutions Adopted by the
General Assembly at Its Eighth Session During the Period from 15 September to 9
December 1953 (New York: General Assembly Official Records, 1953), Supplement No.
32 Robert A. Pastor, “Puerto Rico as an International Issue,” in Richard J. Bloomfield, ed.,
Puerto Rico: The Search for a National Policy (Boulder: Westview Press, 1985), p. 114.
33 DeLima v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 1 (1901); Dooley v. United States, 182 U.S. 222 (1901);
Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 224 (1901); Dorr v. United States, 195 U.S. 138 (1904); Balzac
declared that territories are not integral parts of the United States, but are
possessions, and that certain fundamental rights, but not all constitutional rights,
extend to residents of the territories.34 In general, analysts and legal practitioners
agree with this contention.35 Others, however, notably those who advocate for the
continuation of the commonwealth, argue that other Supreme Court rulings indicate
that Puerto Rico holds a unique status in relation to the United States.36 They argue
that in these cases, the justices concluded that Puerto Rico may exercise certain
authority in a fashion comparable to that of the states.37 Such decisions, however,
do not alter the basic relationship of Puerto Rico to the United States as defined
under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Status Debates and Votes, 1952-1998
Despite the 1952 constitution, the status issue has proven to be perennial and
has repeatedly been the subject of partisan debate and popular vote in Puerto Rico
since 1952. Moreover, each of Puerto Rico’s three political parties is closely
associated with a status preference. Popular Democratic Party — Partido
Democrático Popular (PDP) — favors “Commonwealth” status, whether in the
original form approved by Congress in 1950 or, as expressed in the 1998 plebiscite
and party platform documents in 2004, an expanded version with additional authority
for the government of Puerto Rico. The New Progressive Party — Partido Nuevo
Progresista (PNP) — favors statehood. And the Puerto Rican Independence Party
— Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP) — favors independence.
1967 Plebiscite. Following the recommendation of the Commission on the
Status of Puerto Rico (established pursuant to P.L. 88-271, 78 Stat. 17), the
v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298 (1922).
34 See, in particular, Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 312-313 (1922). In 1975 the court
reaffirmed that Congress and the Supreme Court could determine “the personal rights to be
accorded to the inhabitants of Puerto Rico.” See Examining Board v. Flores de Otero, 426
U.S. 590. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress “may treat Puerto Rico differently from
states so long as there is a rational basis for its actions.” See Harris v. Rosario, 446 U.S.
35 For a discussion on the authority of Congress to exercise jurisdiction over Puerto Rico see
Arnold H. Leibowitz, Defining Status: A Comprehensive Analysis of United States
Territorial Relations (Boston: Kluwer/Academic pub., 1989). See also Richard Thornburgh,
“A Constitutional Path to Self-determination for Puerto Rico,” remarks to the Symposium
on the Politics and Economics of Puerto Rico, sponsored by the Harvard Institute for
International Development, Cambridge, MA, April 28, 1998, available at
[http://www.puertorico-herald.org/issues/vol2n10/thornburgh-path.html], visited March 2,
36 Rep. Jamie Fuster, “Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act,” remarks in the House,
Congressional Record, vol. 136, October 10, 1990, pp. 28335-28336.
37 See Fornaris v. Ridge Tool Co., 400 U.S. 41 (1970). Rodriguez v. Popular Democratic
Party, 457 U.S. 1 (1982), followed by a federal Court of Appeals decision in United States
v. Manuel Quinones, 758 F. 2d 40 (1985). Also, Examining Board v. Flores de Otero, 426
U.S. 596; Córdova & Simonpietri Ins. Co. v. Chase Manhattan Bank, 649 F2d 36 (1981).
government of Puerto Rico organized a popular vote on the status options in July
1967. The commonwealth option received a majority of the votes. Members of the
independence and statehood parties reportedly boycotted the plebiscite.38 One
political analyst contended that the 1967 plebiscite “was tainted by blatant
interference by United States intelligence agencies.”39 Another author commented,
as follows, that all parties claimed victory:
Each status group celebrated the results of the plebiscite: the independentists
because their boycott had been so effective; commonwealth, because of their40
clear majority; and statehood because of their gains.
1991 Referendum. In September 1991, the Puerto Rican legislature approved
legislation that required a referendum be held on December 8, 1991. The voters in
the referendum were asked to vote on self-determination or rights that would be
incorporated into the commonwealth constitution, if the majority of voters approved.
The specific proposals included in the referendum were the right to determine
the status of Puerto Rico without being subject to the plenary powers of Congress,
guarantees of the continuance of Puerto Rico’s culture (including official use of the
Spanish language and retention of a separate Olympic team), and a guarantee of U.S.
citizenship based on constitutional, not statutory, authority. Both the PDP and the
PIP urged a “yes” vote.
Despite PDP and PIP support, a majority (53%) voted against the proposal.
Some contended that the decision to schedule the referendum represented an indirect
step to block statehood. Others perceived the rejection to reflect dissatisfaction with
the governor. Another explanation offered for the vote was that some cast their
ballots out of fear that a “yes” vote would result in a further degradation of federal
benefits and the loss of U.S. citizenship.41
1993 Plebiscite. In the 1992 election campaign, the PNP candidate for
governor urged, and the legislature agreed, that a plebiscite on status be held “after
the U.S. Congress failed to approve” status legislation.42 Since definitions on the
ballot were formulated by the political parties themselves, neither Congress nor
38 Opposition to the plebiscite is discussed in Henry Wells, The Modernization of Puerto
Rico: A Political Study of Changing Values and Institutions (Cambridge, Harvard University
Press, 1969), p. 262. C. Arthur Borg, “The Problem of Puerto Rico’s Political Status,
Revista del Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico, vol. 37, August 1976, p. 493.
39 Juan M. Garcia Passalacqua, “The 1993 Plebiscite in Puerto Rico: A First Step to
Decolonization?,” Current History, vol. 93, March 1994, p. 106.
40 Roberta Ann Johnson, Puerto Rico: Commonwealth or Colony? (New York: Praeger
Special Studies, 1980), p. 138.
41 Robert Friedman, “Voters Say No in Stunning Defeat for RHC,” San Juan Star, December
42 Statement taken from: U.S. Congress, House Committee on Resources, United States-
Puerto Rico Political Status Act, report to accompany H.R. 3024, 104th Cong., 2nd sess.,
H.Rept. 104-713 Part 1, (Washington: GPO, 1996), p. 18.
executive branch officials intervened to ensure that the alternatives presented to the
voters would pass constitutional muster. The disconnect between the ballot option
and constitutional requirements was summarized in the House report accompanying
legislation introduced three years after the plebiscite, as follows:
The 1993 definition of “Commonwealth” failed to present the voters with status
options consistent with full self-government, and it was misleading to propose
to the voters an option which was unconstitutional and unacceptable to the43
Congress in almost every respect.
No option on the ballot in 1993 received a majority of votes. Some contend that
statehood may have suffered the greatest loss, considering the governor and the
legislature were members of the PNP and the plebiscite itself was a major campaign
promise for the governor.44 Others may argue that PDP advocates did not achieve a
final victory in the 1993 vote because Congress rejected the Commonwealth option
presented on ballots.
1998 Action in the 105th Congress. On March 4, 1998, the House
approved H.R. 856, which would have authorized referenda at least once every ten
years, through which the people of Puerto Rico could indicate their preference among
three status options: (1) “Puerto Rico should retain Commonwealth”; (2) “The
people of Puerto Rico should become fully self-governing through separate
sovereignty in the form of independence or free association”; or (3) “Puerto Rico
should become fully self-governing through Statehood.”45 The Senate, however, did
not take formal action on the measure.
After Congress declined to take additional action, elected officials in Puerto
Rico called for a referendum on this issue. On September 17, 1998, the Senate
approved a resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that “(1) the Senate supports
and recognizes the right of United States citizens residing in Puerto Rico to express
democratically their views regarding their future political status through a referendum
or other public forum, and to communicate those views to the President and
Congress; and (2) the Federal Government should review any such
1998 Plebiscite. Having heard both the House and the Senate assert support
for Puerto Ricans to express their status preference, the islanders conducted a
plebiscite on December 13, 1998. Five alternatives were listed on the ballot: “limited
self-government”; “free association”; “statehood”; “sovereignty”; and “none of the
above.” Disputes arose as to the definition of each of the ballot alternatives; and
43 Ibid., p. 19.
44 For a discussion of the 1993 plebiscite and lessons learned see the following articles:
Juan M. Garcia Passalacqua, “The 1993 Plebiscite in Puerto Rico: A First Step to
Decolonization?,” Current History, vol. 93, March 1994, pp. 103-107; José O. Díaz,
“Puerto Rico, the United States, and the 1993 Referendum on Political Status,” Latin
American Research Review, vol. 30, 1995, pp. 203-211.
45 H.R. 856, 105th Cong., Sec. 4.
46 S.Res. 279, 105th Cong.
Commonwealth advocates, among others, reportedly urged a vote for “none of the
above.” They asserted that the commonwealth definition on the ballot “failed to
recognize both the constitutional protections afforded to our U.S. citizenship and the
fact that the relationship is based upon the mutual consent of Puerto Rico and the
United States.” In the end, a slim majority of voters in that plebiscite selected “none
of the above” (50.3%).47
There have been no further plebiscites or referenda on the status issue since the
inconclusive 1998 vote.
Appendix B of this CRS report summarizes the voting results from Puerto
Rican referenda and plebiscites on the status issue since 1967.
Federal Activity After 1998
106th Congress. Following an examination of the 1998 plebiscite, a 1999
congressional committee report concluded that there was a need to “continue the
process of enabling the people of Puerto Rico to implement a structured process of
self-determination based on constitutionally valid options Congress is willing to48
consider.” The absence of consensus in the 1998 plebiscite led some in Congress
to call for further consideration of the status issue.49 In response to the inconclusive
results of the plebiscite, four Members of Congress who chaired committees and a
subcommittee with jurisdiction over Puerto Rico summarized the impact of the vote
[A]fter almost fifty years of local constitutional government in Puerto Rico by
U.S. citizens, now the lack of majority consent to the current form of internal
self-government by those who are disenfranchised nationally, calls into question
the continued acceptability of the status quo. This problem cannot be
unilaterally resolved by the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico acting under the local
constitution, but rather, by working with the federal government which has the
sole power, as well as a duty, to change Puerto Rico’s political status into one of
The 106th Congress continued to give attention to the matter; and on October 4,
which would have recognized Puerto Rico “as a nation legally and constitutionally,”
received no further action.
47 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Resources, The Results of the 1998 Puerto Rico
Plebiscite, Serial No. 106-A, 106th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington: GPO, 1999), p. 20.
48 Ibid., p. 7.
49 “House Narrowly Supports Puerto Rico Plebiscite; Senate Takes No Action,”
Congressional Quarterly 1998 Almanac (Washington: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1998),
pp. 13- 6 and 13-7. See also “Puerto Rico Political Status,” Congressional Digest, vol. 77,
May 1998 (Washington: Congressional Digest Corp., 1998), pp. 142-160.
50 Reps. Don Young, Benjamin Gilman, Dan Burton, and Elton Gallegly, letter to Hon.
Charlie Rodriguez, President, Senate of Puerto Rico and Honorable Edison Misla-
Aldarondo, Speaker, Puerto Rico House of Representatives, April 5, 2000.
Authorizing legislation on the status issue has not been introduced since that
hearing on H.R. 4751.51 But in a further effort to move toward consensus on the
status issue, Congress appropriated $2.5 million for FY2001 for “objective, non-
partisan citizens’ education and a choice by voters on the islands’ future status.”52
The appropriation could not be allocated, however, until the Elections Commission
of Puerto Rico submitted an expenditure plan developed by the three major political
parties in Puerto Rico to the U.S. House and Senate Appropriations Committees.
The statute also required views not in agreement with the plan to be communicated
to Congress. The commission plan was never submitted. As a result, appropriated
funds were never expended; they reverted to the Treasury.53
Executive Branch Action in 2000. President Clinton issued an executive54
order in 2000 that established the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status.
The task force membership comprises the director of the Office of Intergovernmental55
Affairs in the White House and officials from each executive department.
Originally, the task force was to report on its actions by May 1, 2001; but the
deadline provision of the executive order has been amended twice. The first
amendment extended the deadline to August 1, 2001.56 The second amendment
established a more flexible time frame, as follows:
The Task Force shall report on its actions to the President as needed, but no less
frequently than once every two years, on progress made in the determination of
Puerto Rico’s ultimate status.57
2004 General Elections in Puerto Rico. As noted earlier, each of Puerto
Rico’s three political parties is closely associated with a status preference. Popular
Democratic Party — Partido Democrático Popular (PDP) — favors commonwealth
51 Refer to Appendix C of this report for information on H.R. 856 and other significant
legislation considered by Congress on the status issue since 1952.
52 P.L. 106-346, Department of Transportation and Related Agencies Appropriations Act,
FY2001, 114 Stat. 1356A-47.
53 The $2.5 million was not the first appropriation approved by Congress for the purpose of
furthering status discussions. In 1989, $1.5 million was appropriated for grants to the three
main political parties in Puerto Rico for the costs associated with participating “in the
legislative process involving the future political status of Puerto Rico.” See P.L. 101-45,
Supplemental Appropriations Act for the Department of Veterans Affairs, 103 Stat. 125.
54 U.S. President (Clinton), “Establishment of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s
Status,” Executive Order 13183, Federal Register, vol. 65, December 29, 2000, p. 82889.
55 The original list of members is available on the White House website at
[http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/12/20031205-6.html], visited March 2,
56 U.S. President (Bush), “Amendment to Executive Order 13183, Establishment of the
President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status,” Executive Order 13209, Federal Register,
vol. 66, April 30, 2001, p. 22105.
57 U.S. President (Bush), “Executive Order Amendment to Executive Order 13183,
Establishment of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status,” Executive Order
status; the New Progressive Party — Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) — favors
statehood; and the Puerto Rican Independence Party — Partido Independentista
Puertorriqueño (PIP) — favors independence. Thus, the results of general elections
in Puerto Rico are sometimes seen as indicators of whether the perennial status issue
will be actively readdressed.
As a result of the 2004 elections, Puerto Rican government is divided between
those who favor commonwealth status and those who favor statehood. The
governorship was won in a close race by PDP commonwealth advocate Anibal
Acevedo Vilá.58 The PNP, which favors statehood, won a substantial majority in
both chambers of the legislature; and its candidate won the race to represent Puerto
Rico in Congress as resident commissioner.59
Through the early months of 2005, the governor, the resident commissioner,
members of the Puerto Rican legislature, and others reportedly worked on
compromise legislation to achieve what one analyst called “convergence” of the
disparate status opinions. 60 One outcome of that effort occurred early in April 2005,
when the legislature of Puerto Rico enacted legislation authorizing a referendum to
be held on July 10, 2005. The measure, entitled an “Act to Petition for the Self-
Determination of the People of Puerto Rico,” provided for voters to cast ballots in
response to the following proposition:
We, the People of Puerto Rico, in the exercise of our right to self-determination,
demand that the President and the Congress of the United States of America,
before December 31, 2006, express their commitment to respond to the claim of
the People of Puerto Rico to solve our problem of political status from among61
fully democratic options of a non-colonial and non-territorial nature.
The bill would have provided that the majority of valid votes cast (over 50%) on July
10, 2005, would have determined the acceptance or rejection of the proposition that
called for federal action. According to news reports, the legislation embodied a
proposal developed by the Puerto Rico Independence Party — Partido
58 During the four-year period immediately preceding his election the governor served as
Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico to Congress. The resident commissioner, like
delegates from the District of Columbia, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin
Islands, represents his (or her) constituency in Congress. For background on such offices,
see CRS Report RL32340, Territorial Delegates to the U.S. Congress: Current Issues and
Historical Background, by Betsy Palmer; CRS Report RL31856, Resident Commissioner
from Puerto Rico, by R. Eric Petersen. For information on the Resident Commissioner’s
parliamentary rights, see CRS Report RS22592, Parliamentary Rights of the Delegates and
Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico, by Christopher M. Davis.
59 Luis Fortuño is currently serving a four-year term as Resident Commissioner from Puerto
60 Juan M. García Passalacqua, “The Days of Convergence on Status Are Here,” San Juan
Star, March 20, 2005, p. 70.
61 Puerto Rico, Legislative Assembly, Substitute House Bill 1014, 1054, and 1058, Sec. 2.
Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP) — which holds a minority of seats in the
l egi sl at ure. 62
On April 10, 2005, Governor Acevedo Vilá vetoed the legislation. In letters to
the legislative leadership, the governor said that statements made by PNP legislators
following enactment of the bill “fly in the face” of a commitment to use a constituent
assembly to address the political status issue if Congress and the White House did not
respond.63 Among the reasons the PNP might argue against such an assembly is that
options acceptable to the assembly, but unsustainable for being unrecognized by the
U.S. Constitution, might be presented to Congress, resulting in further unproductive
debates. In the closing days of April 2005, the PNP-dominated legislature approved
a concurrent resolution that did not require the governor’s signature. The resolution
petitions Congress and the President:
... to respond to the democratic aspirations of the United States citizens of Puerto
Rico, in order to ensure that with all deliberate speed, they provide us with an
electoral method through which we, ourselves, may choose which shall be our
political relationship with the United States of America, if any, from among fully64
democratic, non-territorial and non-colonial alternatives.
This resolution did not receive support from PDP legislators. According to one news
report, officials associated with the PDP insisted that the definitions of the status
options should be developed by a constituent assembly: “We should not turn it over
to Congress to define the options. Mainly, that’s our problem....If we leave it to
Congress nothing will get approved in the way of status....”65
President’s Task Force Report, December 2005. As mentioned at the
outset of this CRS report, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status issued
a document in December 2005 discussing the status issue and presenting the
following three recommendations:
!Within a year, Congress should provide for a plebiscite to be held to
enable the people of Puerto Rico to choose between remaining a
U.S. territory or attaining “a permanent non-territorial status with the
!If the results from the plebiscite indicate that the people want to
establish a non-territorial status, Congress should provide for a
62 Rosario Fajardo, “Berríos Moves to Break Status Impasse,” The San Juan Star, February
18, 2005, p. 5. The PIP holds one seat in the House of Representatives and one seat in the
Senate. House members are listed at [http://www.camaraderepresentantes.org/legsv.asp];
Senators at [http://www.senadopr.us/senadores/index.php]; visited March 2, 2007.
63 “Governor Vetoes Status Bill,” Press Release, Office of the Governor of Puerto Rico,
April 10, 2005.
64 Puerto Rico, Legislative Assembly, H. Conc. R. 25. English text available from the
65 Remarks of José Hernández Mayoral in Robert Friedman, “P.R. Lawmakers Push for Non-
colonial Options,” San Juan Star, April 17, 2005, p. 5.
second plebiscite that will enable voters to choose between
statehood and independence. On the basis of that selection,
Congress “is encouraged to begin a process of transition toward that
!If, in the original plebiscite, the people of Puerto Rico elect to
remain a U.S. territory, plebiscites should take place “periodically,
as long as that status continues, to keep Congress informed of the
The task force included representatives from each cabinet department. It is
important to note, however, that the task force recommendations do not necessarily
represent the public policy of any particular presidential administration. Deputy
Assistant Attorney General and task force co-chair Kevin Marshall addressed this
point during the November 15, 2006, Senate Energy and Natural Resources
committee hearing on Puerto Rico’s status. In response to a question from Senator
Bingaman, Marshall stated that “The [George W. Bush] administration has not taken
any public position on the task force report. But the executive orders creating the
task force didn’t contemplate that the president would publicly approve or disapprove
of the report.”67 In a subsequent hearing, however, Mr. Marshall announced that the
George W. Bush administration supported the task force report. In his prepared
statement (for a House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs hearing) delivered on April
25, 2007, Marshall noted that he was authorized to affirm that the “Administration
supports the Task Force report.”68 During the hearing, Marshall also emphasized that
H.R. 900 was consistent with the task force’s conclusions regarding constitutionally
viable status options for Puerto Rico.
President’s Task Force Report, December 2007. As noted above, a
2003 executive order requires the task force to report on the status issue at least every
two years. The task force issued its most recent report in December 2007. That
document reiterated the conclusions reached in 2005 (discussed above). The task
force noted that although it was not predisposed to any particular status option, only
three constitutionally viable options were available to Puerto Rico: (1) continuing the
status quo as a U.S. territory subject to the Territorial Clause; (2) statehood; or (3)69
independence. In addition to reaching the same fundamental conclusions as in
66 U.S. President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, Report by the President’s Task
Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, p. 10.
67 GPO records indicate that the official transcript has not yet been published. Marshall’s
quotation appears in “Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Holds Hearing on
Puerto Rico Status,” CQ Transcript, November 15, 2006.
68 Statement of Kevin Marshall, U.S. Department of Justice, at
[http://resourcescommittee.house. go v/ M e d i a / F i l e / H e a r i n gs / 20070425/T estimony_
Marshall.pdf], visited April 26, 2007.
69 U.S. President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, Report by the President’s Task
Force on Puerto Rico’s Status (Washington: December 2007), p. 1; pp. 5-10; available at
[http://www.usdoj .gov/opa/documents/2007-repor t-by-t he-president-t ask-f o r c e -o n -p u erto
-rico-status.pdf], visited January 23, 2008.
In particular, the task force in 2007 noted that use of the term “commonwealth” with
respect to Puerto Rico “describe[s] the substantial political autonomy enjoyed by
Puerto Rico” and “appropriately captures Puerto Rico’s special relationship with the
United States.” However, the task force said, the island remains a U.S. territory
subject to the congressional plenary powers under the Territorial Clause.70 This
language suggests that although the task force perhaps more explicitly recognized a
degree of Puerto Rican autonomy than it did in the 2005 report, the 2007 report
nonetheless reiterated that the Territorial Clause grants Congress wide jurisdiction
over the island as long as Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory. As in 2005, the task
force also concluded that so-called “enhanced commonwealth” was constitutionally
The 2007 task force report also reiterated the 2005 recommendations
!a “federally sanctioned plebiscite” to determine whether Puerto
Ricans wish to maintain the status quo or pursue a “constitutionally
viable” status option;
! the need for a second plebiscite that would present choices between
either statehood or independence if Puerto Ricans choose to pursue
non-territorial status in the first plebiscite; and
! the view that plebiscites should occur “periodically” to revisit the
status question if Puerto Ricans choose to maintain the status quo.72
Issues of Debate on Political Status
The establishment of the Commonwealth in 1952 did not resolve all questions
on the political status of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico remains a territory of the United
States, subject to congressional authority under the Territorial Clause of the U.S.
Constitution. Some Puerto Ricans, however, believe the Commonwealth enjoys a
unique relationship to the United States and the federal government, and that it has
some attributes of separate sovereignty.73 Others argue that commonwealth status is
a temporary political status that falls short of two permanent status options —
70 Ibid., p. 5.
71 Ibid., pp. 6-7.
72 Ibid., pp. 10-11.
73 They argue that Puerto Rico has a culture and identity separate from the United States by
pointing to the presence of a Puerto Rican National Olympic Committee (see
[http://www.olympic.org/uk/organisation/noc/index_uk.asp?id_assoc=9]; visited March 2,
For information on tax policies, see CRS Report RL32708, Federal Taxes and the U.S.
Territories: An Overview, by David L. Brumbaugh. Also, some officials reportedly refer
to Puerto Rico as a “country.” See, for example, Rosario Fajardo, “AAV, Fortuño Agree
on Need to Move Status Issue,” San Juan Star, February 15, 2005, p. 4: “ ‘I believe the
moment has come for the country to have the opportunity of choosing between different
alternatives,’ [Governor Anibal] Acevedo Vilá said.”
statehood or independence as a sovereign nation. Continuation or even enhancement
of this status leaves the governance of Puerto Rico subject to the Territorial Clause,
and therefore subject to congressional action. Others disagree, arguing that the
current status can be a permanent status option that requires adjustments
(“enhancements”) over time.
As the 110th Congress reexamines the political status of Puerto Rico, a number
of policy issues might arise, among which are the following:
!What process will be used to consider the political status options?
!How is each option to be defined?
!What impact would Puerto Rican statehood have on the U.S.
!What associated policy matters might be raised if Congress debates
Each of these issues is discussed below.
Process Options. Past congressional debate and discussions on the political
status of Puerto Rico have focused not only on the end result (“Will the status
change, and if so, what will it be?”), but also on the process by which the debate and
vote were to proceed. The process used to identify, discuss, and vote on status
options would likely be established before debate begins on the “final” status options.
Bills considered by the Puerto Rican legislature in 2005 dealt with one step of the
process — a call from the people of Puerto Rico for a federal response to the status
issue. But the parties in Puerto Rico could not reach consensus on a procedural
matter, and the governor vetoed the measure. The gubernatorial veto of the measure
recently approved by the Puerto Rican legislature and the history of controversy and
popular votes on status proposals suggest that procedural questions will require
careful planning and decisions. Arguably, an agreement on procedure is necessary for
the resolution of subsequent complex questions (e.g., the definition of status options).
Neither the U.S. Constitution nor precedents establish procedures and firm
boundaries for the resolution of controversies concerning the political status of a
territory of the United States. Throughout U.S. history, various procedures have been
used to determine whether a territory affiliated with the United States changes its
status to statehood, or independence with legal ties of free association (or a sovereign
nation), or remains a territory.
History, however, presents some broad outlines and variations. The process of
debate involves the following:
!assessment of how a change of status for the territory might affect
national interests of the United States;
!assessment of the viewpoints of the affected population;
!development of a means by which the preferences of the population
are presented to Congress; and
!consideration of legislative mechanisms through which Congress
and the President act on the status options.
Although the process for resolving the political status question varies, one element
remains common throughout the nation’s history — Congress exercises an essential
role in the process and resolves (or decides not to resolve) the question.
Brief summaries of some of the processes used in the past to resolve political
status issues follow. These summaries do not begin to exhaust or explore the full
range of issues aired during the debates on changes in the political status of
territories; they are offered as examples to provide basic information on historical
Paths to Statehood. Historically, the transition of a territory to statehood
has taken a variety of procedural paths.74 The path for some territories was long and
even torturous, taking many years and involving strife and loss of life. The path for
other territories was relatively straightforward. One team of researchers specifically
tasked to look at the issue from the perspective of the status debate on Puerto Rico
identified six paths.75 The report issued by the team categorized those paths as76
2. unilateral action in territories to present an organized “state” to Congress
(including electing representatives to Congress) for consideration to be78
admitted to the Union, also known as the “Tennessee plan”;
74 The U.S. Constitution provides for the admission of new states “by the Congress into this
Union,” but does not specify a process to be followed; the pertinent constitutional provision
proscribes certain actions from being taken, i.e., no state formed within another, by the
conjoining of two or more states or parts of states without consent of legislatures and
Congress. See U.S. Constitution, Art. IV, Sec. 3, cl. 1.
75 Grupo de Investigadores Puertoriqueños, Breakthrough from Colonialism: An
Interdisciplinary Study of Statehood (Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial de la Universidad
de Puerto Rico,1984), pp. 1207-1226. Hereafter cited as Breakthrough.
76 It might be argued that other “paths” to statehood could be identified, or other
configurations of the above might be developed. For example, options 1 and 5 might be
considered in concert since they both include states admitted to the union primarily through
initiatives undertaken by residents of the future states, with little or no congressional action.
77 Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey,
New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia.
78 Tennessee, Michigan, Iowa, California (some contend that California entered as an
independent republic operating under military government rule), Oregon, Kansas, and
Alaska. For a description of the Tennessee Plan process, see Breakthrough, pp. 1209, 1210;
see also William Tansill, Elections of Congressional Delegation Prior to the According of
Statehood, Legislative Reference Service, 1955.
5. development of a state constitution without congressional support;81 and
Another perspective is presented in a report prepared by contractors for a
commission on Alaska’s statehood. The commission report identified two basic
paths — one stemming from congressional initiatives; the other, from territorial
Initially, as provided in the Northwest Ordinance, Congress would authorize a
territory to initiate the steps toward statehood. Once the territory drafted a
constitution and set up a government, the Congress would pass a second statute
admitting the territory as a state. On the other hand, the respective territory
would present itself to the Congress as ready for statehood, thus leaving out the
step in which the Congress passed the enabling act or gave the territory the go-83
ahead to start meeting the requirements of statehood.
Independence: Development of a Sovereign Identity. Some territories
affiliated with the United States eventually became independent sovereign nations
after considerable congressional debate and years of action (or inaction). For
example, the Philippine Islands gained independence in 1946 after decades of
negotiations between Filipino officials and Congress, and years after Congress passed
legislation in 1934 “To provide for the complete independence of the Philippine
Islands, to provide for the adoption of a constitution and a form of government for84
the Philippine Islands, and for other purposes.” In essence, for roughly 50 years,
the federal government exercised unilateral authority in developing and modifying
the political status of the Philippines, largely through legislation that established trade
policies, provided financial assistance, placed restrictions on immigration,
established a commonwealth government with limited powers, and established
governance policies on the islands.85 As summarized by one author:
80 Vermont, Kentucky, Maine, and West Virginia.
81 Arkansas, Florida, Wyoming, Idaho, and Hawaii.
82 Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota,
Nevada, Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Washington, Utah,
Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico.
83 The Concept of Statehood within the American Federal System; prepared under contract
for the Alaska Statehood Commission by Birch, Horton, Bittner, and Monroe, PC
(Fairbanks, Alaska: The Commission, 1981), p. 70.
84 P.L. 73-127, 48 Stat. 456 et seq. See U.S. President (Roosevelt), Proclamation No. 2695,
85 The Independence Act of 1934 retained selected federal control over the Philippines. For
example, the statute directed the President to withdraw all right of possession and
sovereignty “(except such naval reservations and fueling stations as are reserved under
section 5)” and maintained the force of federal law “Except as in this Act otherwise
Although the Independence Act had provided that the provisions of the act would
not take effect “until accepted by concurrent resolution of the Philippine
Legislature or by a convention called for the purpose of passing upon that
question,” which suggested a bilateral agreement, these changes were made86
Free Association. In 1947 after the close of World War II, the United
Nations established the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, to be administered by
the United States. The federal government exercised administrative control over the
islands for decades through the Department of the Navy and subsequently through
the Department of the Interior. The Congress of Micronesia, which the U.S. Congress
had established in 1964, created the Future Political Status Commission to consider
political status options. The commission recommended beginning negotiations to
create compacts of free association with the United States. Such compacts recognize
that independent nations do not fall under the suzerainty of the United States, but are
closely allied in terms specified in the compacts. In order to negotiate such
compacts, the residents of the islands organized into three separate entities — the
Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of Palau, and the Republic of
the Marshall Islands (RMI). Through constitutional conventions, the elected officials
developed and ratified separate constitutions and established republican governments
headed by elected officials. After the three independent republics assumed full
responsibility for the islands’ internal governance, U.S. and island officials spent
years negotiating the terms of the compacts of free association. Two of those
compacts, for FSM and the RMI, were recently renegotiated. Portions of the87
compact with Palau expire in 2009 and are expected to be renegotiated.
Recent Debate over the Process in Puerto Rico. Much of the debate
among Puerto Rico’s officials currently centers around alternative mechanisms for
discussing and resolving the status options. One option, advocated by the governor
and the PDP, is to establish a constituent assembly or local constitutional
conventions. The members of the assembly would be elected by the people of Puerto
Rico and would be charged with developing the status options to be offered to the88
people of Puerto Rico and to Congress. Delegates to the assembly, pursuant to the
provided...until altered” by the commonwealth government of the islands or by Congress.
86 Arnold H. Leibowitz, Colonial Emancipation in the Pacific and the Caribbean: A Legal
and Political Analysis (New York: Praeger, 1976), p. 25.
87 Background information obtained from FSM Representative Office, The Federated States
of Micronesia (Washington: 1983), available from the author. For information on the
renegotiated Compacts of Free Association, see CRS Report RL31737, The Marshall
Islands and Micronesia: Amendments to the Compact of Free Association with the United
States, by Thomas Lum. The compacts texts are found in 48 U.S.C. 1901.
88 Governor Acevedo Vilá wrote to President Bush that the legislation he introduced would
provide for a referendum on July 10, 2005, that would present two options to the voters:
first, “a formal request to the United States Congress to authorize a federally mandated
plebiscite” that would enable voters to choose among the commonwealth, statehood, and
independence alternatives “as defined by Congress,” or second, to approve the convening
legislation that had been introduced by the governor, would “establish a dialogue”
with executive branch officials and submit a report to the President and to Congress
on the proposals for the political relationship of Puerto Rico to the United States.89
The report of the assembly, according to the proposal, “must represent alternatives
to overcome all vestiges of colonialism” and “establish clearly the non-territorial
nature of the future status of Puerto Rico.”90 Negotiations between representatives
of Puerto Rico and Congress arguably would address issues of the constitutionality
of the status options developed by the assembly.
A second option, reportedly supported by the majority of the legislature and the
current Resident Commissioner, called for a referendum to be held in 2005 in Puerto
Rico. If, under the proposal, a majority of the voters had approved the convening of
a referendum, the process of establishing federally defined status options would have
begun. Options developed by federal officials would then have been presented to the
people of Puerto Rico for their consideration. A plebiscite would then have been
held before July 1, 2007, on those options.91
A third option, described previously in this report, was based upon a PIP
proposal. The PNP-led Puerto Rican legislature approved the measure with a PDP-
supported amendment, but the governor vetoed it. According to the bill, if Congress
had not reacted within 90 days of the deadline (December 31, 2006), the Puerto
Rican legislature would have been “committed to legislate” to enable the people of
Puerto Rico to choose the procedural mechanism to be used to further the status
discussions. The mechanisms mentioned in the legislation included, but were not
limited to, “a Constitutional Convention on Status, or a petition for a plebiscite with
The decision by the governor to veto the legislation and, at least temporarily,
halt formal discussion of the process, means that many questions remain unanswered.
Were Congress to take up the status debate, some procedural questions that might be
raised include the following:
!Would the legislation be self-executing? That is, would Congress
enact legislation that requires no further congressional action once
the people of Puerto Rico reach consensus on a status option?
Would congressional approval of self-executing legislation be
of a Constitutional Assembly on Status. Governor Acevedo Vilá, letter to President George
W. Bush, February 11, 2005.
89 Art. 7.1 of legislation “To implement a Referendum to determine the procedural
mechanism through which to determine future changes regarding the political status of
Puerto Rico and the relationship between the people of Puerto Rico and the United States,”
available from the author.
91 Rosario Fajardo, “AAV, Fortuño Agree on Need to Move Status Issue,” San Juan Star,
February 15, 2005, p. 4.
92 “Act to Petition and for the Self-Determination of the People of Puerto Rico,” Sec. 2.
consistent with the responsibility of Congress under the Territorial
!If the Puerto Rican legislature and Governor Acevedo Vilá remain
unable to reach agreement on legislation to initiate the process,
would Congress respond to a concurrent resolution adopted solely
by the legislature?93
!Would a plurality or a majority of registered voter participation be
required to indicate support for a final status option? Are there
circumstances under which a plurality vote for a status option would
be acceptable to Congress and the people of Puerto Rico? None of
the 110th Congress bills establish minimum thresholds for support
among voters (e.g., minimum percentages for a result to be
considered valid). A plurality rather than a majority vote could be
particularly likely in the S. 1936 plebiscite because the bill would
present four options to voters simultaneously. Similarly, none of the
110th Congress legislation guarantees that voters would choose any
of options presented.
!Would Puerto Ricans who reside on the mainland or in other parts
of the United States besides Puerto Rico be eligible to vote on the
status proposal? The two House bills introduced in the 110th
Congress contain language suggesting that Puerto Ricans living
outside the islands would be allowed to participate.
!At what stage (or stages) in the decisionmaking process would the
people of Puerto Rico participate? In the election of officials
specifically tasked with resolving the issue? In establishing the
status definitions? In voting on the definitions established by others,
including federal officials? In a referendum on legislation approved
by the Puerto Rican legislature or by Congress?
Definitions of Status Options. Definitions or, more specifically, the lack
of definitions of the political status options for Puerto Rico compound the complexity
of the debate. Agreement on standard definitions of the terms may be elusive, even
if the terms are initially accepted as defined. In particular, the lack of a clear and
stable legal definition for the term “commonwealth” complicates the debate. Some
argue that Congress should define the terms. Others, however, advocate direct
involvement by the people of Puerto Rico, or their elected leaders, in setting the
definitions. The history of debate, particularly the 1998 plebiscite, indicates that in
93 On January 23, 1997, the legislature enacted Concurrent Resolution 2, “requesting
Congress to sponsor a vote based on definitions it would be willing to consider if approved
by voters.” See U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Puertothnd
Rico Status, workshop, April 2, 1998, 105 Cong., 2 sess. (Washington: GPO, 1998), p.
the absence of constitutionally valid status options and definitions acceptable to
Congress, the debate over status yields few or no conclusive results.94
Brief summaries of aspects of each status option follow in order to provide basic
information on the options. The information below does not represent official
descriptions of status options, but is provided only to give general background
information. The options are presented in alphabetical order.
Commonwealth. The commonwealth option represents a continuation of the
current status of Puerto Rico. The territorial clause of the United States Constitution95
empowers Congress with the authority to regulate territories. Commonwealth status
for Puerto Rico is based on statutory provisions96 and the Constitution of Puerto Rico
that established a republican form of self-government. Under current federal law,
residents of Puerto Rico enjoy U.S. citizenship, but many contend that the Puerto
Rican identity reflects a degree of autonomy that enables the island to remain
somewhat separate from, but part of, the United States.97 Some support an enhanced
or “new” commonwealth status and seek changes in the current relationship to
increase the autonomy of Puerto Rico. Aspects of enhanced commonwealth
considered but rejected by Congress in 1991 and 2001 included providing the
government of Puerto Rico authority to certify that certain federal laws would not be
applicable to the commonwealth, mandating that the President consult with the
governor on appointments to federal offices in Puerto Rico that require Senate
approval, recognizing a permanent relationship between Puerto Rico and the United
States that cannot be unilaterally changed, and establishing economic relationships98
with other nations. Concepts associated with enhanced or new commonwealth have
94 Constitutional implications of three status options (“new commonwealth,” statehood, and
independence) were reviewed by the Department of Justice in response to a congressional
request. See Robert Raben, Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Dept. of Justice, letter to The
Honorable Frank H. Murkowski, Chairman, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural
Resources, January 18, 2001. Hereafter cited as Raben Letter.
95 U.S. Constitution, Art. IV, Sec. 3.
96 Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act, P.L. 81-600, 64 Stat. 319.
97 In 1992, President George H.W. Bush described the relationship of the Commonwealth
to the United States with regard to the administration of federal programs, as follows:
“Because Puerto Rico’s degree of constitutional self-government, population, and size set
it apart from other areas also subject to federal jurisdiction under Article IV, section 3,
clause 2 of the Constitution, I hereby direct all federal departments, agencies, and officials,
to the extent consistent with the Constitution and the laws of the United States, hence-
forward to treat Puerto Rico administratively as if it were a state, except insofar as doing so
with respect to an existing federal program or activity would increase or decrease federal
receipts or expenditures, or would seriously disrupt the operation of such program or
activity.” U.S. President (Bush), “Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments
and Agencies,” Federal Register, vol. 57, December 2, 1992, p. 57093.
98 Title IV, S. 244, in U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources,
Political Status of Puerto Rico, hearing on S. 244, 102nd Cong., 1st sess., January 30 andth
February 7, 1991 (Washington: GPO, 1991), pp. 73-101. See also H.R. 4751, 106
Congress. The Department of Justice (Raben Letter) found that certain aspects of a “New
not been published in 2005, but the current governor has reportedly sought additional
sovereign authority that would enable Puerto Rico’s government officials to negotiate
international agreements and establish new intergovernmental fiscal relations with
the federal government.
Free Association. This option would establish Puerto Rico as a sovereign99
nation separate from, but legally bound (on a terminable basis) to, the United States.
As a general practice, free association would be preceded by recognition that Puerto
Rico is a self-governing sovereign nation not part of the United States, because
compacts of free association are legal documents between sovereign nations. Free
association could be accompanied by a transition period in which the United States
would continue to administer certain services and provide assistance to the island for
a period of time specified in the compact. Free association could be annulled at any
time by either nation. Negotiations over free association would likely decide issues
of trade, defense, currency, and economic aid.
Independence. Some advocates of independence contend that the cultural
identity of Puerto Ricans, and other factors, justify independence. As residents of a
sovereign independent nation, Puerto Ricans could develop closer ties to Caribbean
nations, but would likely be forced to choose between citizenship in the United States100
or in Puerto Rico. The current unrestricted travel between the United States and
the island might end, as would federal benefits (unless specified in the enabling
legislation). Puerto Rico would, as a sovereign nation, develop its own economy,
form of government, and complete national identity.
Statehood. Advocates of statehood contend that the full rights and
responsibilities of citizenship should be granted to residents of Puerto Rico. Political
stability, particularly as an economic development tool, is seen by some to be one
significant advantage of statehood. As residents of a state, Puerto Ricans would be
entitled to full representation in Congress, would be subject to income taxes, and
would be eligible to receive federal assistance like that provided to all of the states.101
Opponents argue that statehood would result in a loss of national identity.
Commonwealth” proposal described in PDP platform documents could be, or are:
“constitutionally unenforceable” or flawed (mutual consent provisions, pp. 8-10 and
delegation of powers, p. 14); of uncertain legality (statutory citizenship, p. 11, and
international agreements, p. 13); and possibly subject to constitutional limits (Resident
Commissioner authority, p. 12).
99 For a discussion of the free association status of former territories of the United States
located in the Pacific Ocean, see CRS Report RL31737, The Marshall Islands and
Micronesia: Amendments to the Compact of Free Association with the United States, by
100 According to the Department of Justice, case law is not determinative as to whether
citizenship would be retained if Puerto Rico gained independence. See Raben Letter, p. 4.
101 The Department of Justice noted that, once granted statehood, Puerto Rico could not
maintain differential tax treatment; its representation in Congress would affect that of the
other states; and its laws and constitution might be preempted by federal statutes. See
Raben Letter, pp. 2-3.
Other Issues. If political status legislation were debated in Congress, the
following issues, previously raised in discussions, might be subject to congressional
Effect on the U.S. Congress. If Puerto Rico were to be granted statehood,
one of the most significant issues would be the impact of the 51st state on the
organization and operation of Congress. Two new Senators would increase the size
of the Senate to 102. A state of Puerto Rico would send approximately six
Representatives to the House. Based on past precedent, congressional leaders might
select among three options — (1) temporarily increasing the size of the House until
the next decennial census, (2) permanently increasing the size of the House, or (3)
subtracting congressional seats from other states and assigning those seats to Puerto
Rico.102 Depending on which option were chosen, the 50 states currently in the union
would lose some degree of absolute or relative voting strength, or both. Moreover,
admission of Puerto Rico might also affect the party split in each chamber of
Language Requirement. The Federal Relations Act provision that
establishes the qualification requirements for the Resident Commissioner specifies
that eligible candidates must “read and write the English language.”103 During the
1998 House debate on H.R. 856, an amendment was adopted that would have
established an English language education requirement if Puerto Rico were admitted
as a state.104 See Table C-4 of this report for the reference to the 1998 amendment
on the English language requirement. There is precedent for a language requirement
to be attached to a statehood proposal. The admission of three states — Oklahoma,105
New Mexico, and Arizona — was contingent upon such a requirement.
Citizenship. In 1917 Congress extended citizenship to “citizens” of Puerto
Rico who were not citizens of foreign countries.106 Persons born in Puerto Rico after107
102 The estimate of six Representatives is based on the 2000 census. For a full discussion
of the potential effect of Puerto Rican statehood on apportionment of House seats, see CRS
Report RS21151, Puerto Rican Statehood: Effects on House Apportionment, by David C.
Huckabee, now retired from CRS.
103 48 U.S.C. 892.
104 Remarks in the House, Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 144, March 4, 1998, pp.
H802-H812. An amendment designating Spanish as the official language of Puerto Rico
was rejected during the same debate.
105 Joseph E. Fallon, “Federal Policy and U.S. Territories: The Political Restructuring of the
United States of America,” Pacific Affairs, vol. 64, spring 1991, p. 34.
106 P.L. 64-368, 39 Stat. 953.
107 “All persons born in Puerto Rico on or after April 11, 1899, and prior to January 13,
1941, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, residing on January 13, 1941, in Puerto
Rico or other territory over which the United States exercises rights of sovereignty and not
citizens of the United States under any other Act, are declared to be citizens of the United
States as of January 13, 1941. All persons born in Puerto Rico on or after January 13, 1941,
“statutory” citizenship differs from “constitutional” citizenship that automatically
confers upon persons born in the United States (as opposed to the areas subject to the
territories clause).108 If the political status of Puerto Rico changes to one of
independent sovereignty, some have argued that the people of Puerto Rico should be
provided the opportunity to elect between citizenship in the new nation or retention
of U.S. citizenship. Congress might elect to modify the citizenship status of
descendants of the people of Puerto Rico by changing the statute, but only if such
legislation meets a “rational basis” test consistent with the due process clause of the
U.S. Constitution.109 See Table C-4 of this report for the reference to the 1998
legislative provisions pertinent to citizenship. Some contend that dual citizenship is
an option. Former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, among others, has spoken
in opposition to this option if Puerto Rico becomes a sovereign nation.110 Extensive111
debate on the citizenship issue has been published.
Transition Period. If the political status of Puerto Rico changes, Congress
might elect to establish a transition period during which certain elements are phased
into place. Policy matters previously included in such transition periods include, for
statehood: gradual modification of tax liability, language requirements, impact of
representation on Congress, and others. If Puerto Rico gains independence, Congress
might elect to consider a period of time in which federal financial assistance is
provided, and strategic defense agreements are reached, among other matters.
Recent activity regarding Puerto Rico’s political status — in Congress and onth
the island — suggests that action may be taken in the 110 Congress. The reports
issued in 2007 and 2005 by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status may
further stimulate both Puerto Rican and congressional interest in reconsidering the
and subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, are citizens of the United States at birth.”
108 “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction
thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” U.S. Const.,
Amendment XIV, Sec. 1.
109 See Harris v. Rosario, 446 U.S. 651 (1980).
110 U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Political Status of
Puerto Rico, hearings on S. 244, 102nd Cong., 1st sess., February 7, 1991 (Washington: GPO,
Resources, Separate Sovereignty or Independence for Puerto Rico, hearing, 105 Cong., 2
sess., June 23, 1998 (Washington: GPO, 1998), pp. 10-15, 21-30.
111 See, for example, John L.A. de Passalacqua, “The Involuntary Loss of United States
Citizenship of Puerto Ricans Upon Accession to Independence by Puerto Rico,” Denver
Journal of International Law and Policy, vol. 19, fall 1990, pp. 139-161; Rep. Ron de
Lugo, “Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act,” remarks in the House, Congressional Record,
vol. 136, October 10, 1990, pp. 28331-8332, 28336; José Julián Alvarez González, “The
Empire Strikes Out: Congressional Ruminations on the Citizenship Status of Puerto Ricans,”
Harvard Journal on Legislation, vol. 27, summer 1990, pp. 309-365.
existing commonwealth status, as legislative developments during the 109th and 110th
Congresses suggest. Congressional action might also be affected if the legislature
and governor of Puerto Rico resolved their procedural disagreements. Agreement on
the process to be used in considering the status proposals has been as elusive as
agreement on the end result. Congress would have a determinative role in any
resolution of the issue. The four options that appear to be most frequently discussed
include continuation of the commonwealth, modification of the current
commonwealth agreement, statehood, or independence. If independence, or separate
national sovereignty, were selected, Puerto Rican officials might seek to negotiate a
compact of free association with the United States.
Appendix A: Brief Chronology of Status Events
YearBrief summary of events
1898-1900Spain cedes the islands of Puerto Rico to the United States at the
conclusion of the Spanish-American War; U.S. military commanders
govern Puerto Rico.
government headed by presidential appointees.
1917Enactment of the Jones Act of 1917 that established a bill of rights for
citizens, provided for a popularly elected Senate, authorized election of
Resident Commissioner, and extended U.S. citizenship to residents of113
a constitutional government.
the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, with amendments.
1953U.S. delegate reports to the United Nations that the relationship
between Puerto Rico and the United States is based upon a bilateral
compact. The United Nations resolves that Puerto Rico is “an
autonomous political entity” and is to be no longer included on the list117
of “Non-Self-Governing Territories.”
1964-1966United States-Puerto Rico Commission on the Status of Puerto Rico
convenes, issues reports, and recommends that a status plebiscite be118
1967Plebiscite on status held, majority vote in favor of commonwealth
112 P.L. 56-191, 31 Stat. 77.
113 P.L. 64-368, 39 Stat. 951.
114 P.L. 80-362, 61 Stat. 770.
115 P.L. 81-600, 64 Stat. 319.
116 P.L. 82-447, 66 Stat. 327.
117 United Nations Resolution 748 (VIII), Yearbook of the United Nations 1953 (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1954), p. 539.
118 P.L. 88-271, 78 Stat. 17.
YearBrief summary of events
1975-1977Commission report on Compact of Permanent Union between the
United States and Puerto Rico issued. Legislation introduced pursuant119
to report recommendations, but not acted upon.
and Senate committees report (S. 712) different bills.
1998House (105th Congress) passes status legislation (H.R. 856) referred to
as the Young bill; Senate does not act on comparable legislation, but
approves resolution (S.Res. 279) in support of referendum.
2000Appropriation of $2.5 million included in Department of
Transportation Appropriations Act (P.L. 106-346) for a status
education campaign and a status vote.
President Clinton issues E.O. 10383; established the President’s Task
Force on Puerto Rico’s Status.
2005The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status issues report that
sets forth recommendations for congressional action.
4867, H.R. 4963) to initiate processes for constitutional conventions or
plebiscites on status options.
2007Legislation introduced in the 110th Congress to initiate plebiscites
(H.R. 900, S. 1936) or a constitutional convention and referendum
(H.R. 1230) on status options. House Natural Resources Committee
reports amended version of H.R. 900, which contains some H.R. 1230
provisions. The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s status issues
a second report, which reiterates the 2005 recommendations and
119 94th Cong., H.R. 11200, S.J. Res. 215. Instead, President Ford submitted statehood
legislation (H.R. 2201) that received no action.
Appendix B: Puerto Rico Status Votes in
Plebiscites and Referenda, 1967-1998
JULY 23, 1967c
Statehood 273,315 38.9%
Independence 4,118 0.6%
DECEMBER 8, 1991e
Against the reclamation of660,26753.6%
democratic rights (No)
In favor of the reclamation of559,16345.4%
democratic rights (Yes)
NOVEMBER 14, 1993 f
Statehood 788,296 46.4%
Independence 75,620 4.4%
DECEMBER 13, 1998 h
None of the above [option five]787,90050.3%
Statehood [option three]728,15746.6%
Sovereignty [option four, independence]39,8382.6%
Free association [option two]4,5360.3%
Limited self-government [option one] i9930.1%
a. Table excludes blank or null and void ballots.
b. Number of registered voters, total votes, and percent turnout derived from sources of results
(noted below), except for registered voters in 1991 calculated by CRS.
c. Number of votes for independence calculated by CRS based on data presented in: Arturo
Morales Carrion, Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History, (New York: W.W. Norton
& Co., Inc., 1983), p. 306. [Total number of registered voters was 1,067,000, according to
Surendra Bhana, The United States and the Development of the Puerto Rican Status
Question, 1936-1968, (Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 1975), p. 185.] See
also Roberta A. Johnson, “The 1967 Puerto Rican Plebiscite: The People Decide,”
Revista/Review InterAmericana, vol. 5, spring 1975, pp. 27-46.
d. The votes in favor of the 1967 Commonwealth option arguably demonstrated support for an
expanded form of self-government for Puerto Rico, in that the ballot proposition included
text referring to the “inviolability” and “indissoluble link” of Puerto Rican citizenship and
would have required approval of changes in the political status in a referendum.
e. Results taken from Representative Robert J. Lagomarsino, “Certification of Puerto Rico
Referendum Results,” remarks in the House, Congressional Record, vol. 138, Feb. 7, 1992,
p. 2141. A “yes” vote, generally urged by commonwealth and independence supporters,
expressed support for legislation that would have amended the Constitution to support the
right of Puerto Ricans to determine a political status not subordinated to Congress and
respective of the unique culture and identity of Puerto Rico. A “no” vote, generally urged by
statehood supporters, rejected the proposed constitutional amendment.
f. Results taken from Ivonne Garcia, “Final Status Plebiscite Results Released,” San Juan Star,
Dec. 10, 1993, p. 12.
g. The text of the ballot for the “Commonwealth” option in 1993 included provisions that arguably
exceeded the relationship established in 1950, included “irrevocable U.S. citizenship,”
“fiscal autonomy for Puerto Rico,” and a legislative agenda to be considered by Congress.
h. Results taken from U.S. Congress, House Committee on Resources, The Results of the 1998thst
Puerto Rico Plebiscite, committee print, 106 Cong., 1 sess. (Washington: GPO, 1999),
i. The text of the ballot arguably presented the Commonwealth option in that it referred to the
political status set forth in P.L. 600, the plenary authority of the Congress in the territorial
clause of the U.S. Constitution, and other characteristics generally associated with the
political status of Puerto Rico.
Appendix C: Congressional Activity on Puerto
Rico’s Political Status, 1989-1998
During the four decades following approval of the commonwealth constitution
in 1952, Congress did not act upon most legislation introduced to alter Puerto Rico’s
political status.120 The primary exception occurred in 1964, when the 88th Congress
and the legislature of Puerto Rico approved legislation that established a commission
on the status issue.121 From 1952 through 1988, various bills to reconsider or modify
the political status of Puerto Rico were introduced, but did not receive action.122 In
1975, for example, the 94th Congress considered H.R. 11200 to establish a Compact
of Permanent Union, as recommended by the Ad Hoc Advisory Group for Puerto
Rico, but the bill was not reported out of either the House or Senate committees of
jurisdiction. In 1976, President Ford proposed statehood for Puerto Rico. For that
purpose, H.R. 2201 was introduced in the 95th Congress, but received no action.
In the 101st Congress, the issue gained prominence and congressional attention,
to some degree due to unified pressure from Puerto Rican elected officials.123 This
began a 10-year period from 1989 through 1998 (101st through the 105th Congresses)
when 19 bills were introduced on the status issue. Four of the 19 bills were reported
out of committee; two of those were approved by the full House. During that 10-year
period, no political status bills were approved by the full Senate, but a resolution (as
S.Res. 279) supporting the status referendum in 1998 did gain approval in the Senate.
During the 106th Congress funds were appropriated to facilitate a popular vote (P.L.
This appendix summarizes the provisions of the four bills that received
congressional action from 1989 to 1998. It begins with four tables that facilitate
comparisons of the bills. Table C-1 provides basic information on the four bills that
received action since 1989. Tables C-2 through C-4 provide summary information
on the contents of the bills. The information in these tables reflects the contents of
the bills as finally acted upon.
120 The information in this appendix is limited to the time period of 1989-1998 because the
most significant recent congressional action occurred during those years. This appendix will
be updated to reflect congressional legislative action that involves, at a minimum, a
committee’s decision to report legislation.
121 P.L. 88-271, 78 Stat. 18. In addition, in 1979 (96th Congress), both chambers approved
a resolution (S.Con.Res. 35) affirming the commitment of Congress to the right of the
people of Puerto Rico to determine their own political future.
122 Also, both the House and the Senate considered concurrent resolutions limited to an
expression of the sense of either or both chambers on matters related to status. This report
does not consider such resolutions.
123 The delivery of petitions with more than 350,000 signatures in support of statehood to
Congress in the 100th Congress reportedly stimulated action.
Table C-1. Status Legislation, 1989-1998: Summary Information
101st Congress104th Congress105th Congress
H.R. 4765S.712H.R. 3024H.R. 856
September 30, 1990September 18, 1996March 4, 1998
iki/CRS-RL32933erto Rico Self-DeterminationPuerto Rico Status Referendum ActUnited States-Puerto Rico PoliticalUnited States-Puerto Rico Political
g/wtStatus ActStatus Act
leaknal action taken
://wikissed HouseReported from Committees onReported from Committees on RulesPassed House
httpEnergy and Financeand Resources
ote, not recordedEnergy Committee - 11 yeas, 8 nays;Rules Committee - voice vote;209 ayes
Finance Committee - voice voteResources Committee - 10 yeas, 0208 nays
t IS.Rept. 101-481Parts 1&2Part 1
Table C-2. Status Legislation, 1989-1998: Procedures
101st Congress104th Congress105th Congress
H.R. 4765S. 712H.R. 3024H.R. 856
mittees of jurisdictionNo provisionSimilar to provisions in H.R. 4765,Required that House and Senate
ust introduce implementingwith recognition that provisionsmajority leaders introduce
islation by March 6, 1992;would be considered part of Houselegislation and that committees
iki/CRS-RL32933islation set out. §5and Senate rules, with allowancefor rule changes. §6report bill (or automatic dischargebe implemented), and established
g/wexpedited procedures. §6
://wikiStatehood, Independence,Continue present commonwealth,Retain commonwealth, separate
httpmonwealth relationship,” and,Commonwealthseparate sovereignty or U.S.sovereignty through (a)
e. §2(a)sovereignty through (a)independence or (b) free
independence or free association orassociation, or statehood. §4(a)
(b) statehood. §4(a)
rements for referendum
itial referendum would be held onInitial referendum would be held onReferendum would be held no laterSame as H.R. 3024
ber 16, 1991, or later date asJune 4, 1991, or later date duringthan Dec. 31, 1998. §4(a)
reed by specified committee. summer of 1991 as mutually agreed
(ratification vote)by the 3 political parties. §101(b)
islation. §2(a), §6(a)
101st Congress104th Congress105th Congress
H.R. 4765S. 712H.R. 3024H.R. 856
ation of mainland residents in vote
ernment of Puerto RicoNo provision, but provided thatNo provision, but provided thatSame as H.R. 3024. §4(a), 5(a)
ed to enable nonresidentgeneral election laws would apply.general election laws would apply,
ister and vote in§101(d)including voting eligibility. §4(a),
inconclusive vote by Puerto Rican residents
g/wajority of voters did notIf a majority of voters did notThe President and others wouldSame as H.R. 3024. §5(c)
s.ore one of the 3 status options orapprove one of the 3 status options, ahave had to recommend action
leakplementing legislation notrunoff referendum would be held onwithin 180 days; existing
embers of committees2 options receiving the most votes,commonwealth structure would
://wikiurisdiction would have to makeincluding “none of the above.”have remained, with subsequent
httpmendations. §7§101(c)referenda held every four years.
ovision for transition period
ision in legislation, butUnder statehood, Medicare, foodIf a majority of voters approved theSimilar to H.R. 3024, but transition
ndependence” definition in reportstamp, and tax policies continued as“self-government” option, theplan would have had to include
ided for a transition period of atspecified. §213 Under independence,President would have had toEnglish language provisions, with
ears for economic stabilitya Joint Transition Committee woulddevelop a transition plan of at leasttransition plan of no more than 10
ilitarization. Also, statehoodhave been established. §305, §313-10 years to lead to full self-years. §4(b)
ision.318government, and local legislature
pp. 21-22.would have been authorized to call
a constitutional convention. §4(b)
101st Congress104th Congress105th Congress
H.R. 4765S. 712H.R. 3024H.R. 856
nding for referendum
thorized $13.5 million for theNo provisionGrants for the costs of the referendaSame as H.R. 3024. §7
. §2(b)and for voter education provided
from excise tax collections on
imported rum. §7
g/wisionLocal laws and procedures dictatedNo provisionNo provision
s.oradjudication, with specified
leakprovisions for challenging vote
httpred threshold for referendum vote
ority for one of the 3 options. §4Majority for one of the 3 options.Majority of “valid votes cast.”Same as H.R. 3024. §4(a)
quirement for presidential action
e had to consultUnder independence, the PresidentSee transition period andSame as H.R. 3024. §4c
embers of committees withmust surrender rights of possessioninconclusive vote comments,
risdiction and others onand control, provide notice to foreignabove. Also, President would have
plementing legislation. governments. §307, 310had to submit legislation for self-
government transition. §4c
Table C-3. Status Legislation, 1989-1998: Options
101st Congress104th Congress105th Congress
H.R. 4765S. 712H.R. 3024H.R. 856
mitted on footing equal to allAdmitted on footing equal to all states: Provision for: guaranteedSimilar provision to H.R. 3024, with
ith citizenship andterritorial boundaries and land claimsconstitutional rights, permanentofficial English language requirement
oting rights guaranteed.aaddressed; provision for nationalunion, reserved powers,specified. §4(a)
iki/CRS-RL32933representation; effectiveness ofexisting laws provided for, as well asresponsibility for payment of taxes,national representation and voting
g/wcontinuation of pending suits. Seerights, and application of language
s.ortransition period, above. Title IIrequirement similar to that applied in
other states. §4(a)
isionNo provision; see “EnhancedContinuation of presentContinuation of present
commonwealth”commonwealth structure, withcommonwealth structure. Congress
relationship dissoluble only bywould have retained authority to set
mutual consent, citizenship securedpolicy and decide ultimate status
by U.S. Constitution, federal benefitsthrough process that would have
equal to states contingent on taxrequired periodic referenda. §4(a)
101st Congress104th Congress105th Congress
H.R. 4765S. 712H.R. 3024H.R. 856
rmanent relationship withAuthorized governor and legislature toNo provisionNo provision
identify federal laws and regulations
not applicable to Puerto Rico and
ent on contributions, andprovided for congressional or
y inaexecutive review. Revised other areas
§2of policy such as trade and air
iki/CRS-RL32933transportation agreements. Title IV
isionNo provisionSee “Independence,” below.See “Independence,” below.
ent of republican formEstablishment of constitution for aSeparate sovereignty throughSimilar provision to H.R. 3024. §4(a)
overnment through arepublican form of government. independence or free association
§2aEffect of independence on existingcharacterized by: full authority for
laws provided for, along with defense,internal and external affairs, treaty or
land holdings, and other areas. Seebilateral pact terminable by either
transition period, above. Title IIInation, adoption of a constitution for
a republican form of government,
diplomatic recognition, trade based
on treaty, and other provisions. §4(a)
101st Congress104th Congress105th Congress
H.R. 4765S. 712H.R. 3024H.R. 856
entified as a valid option on theNo provision, but if a runoffNo provisionNo provision
ballot. §2areferendum had been required, this
option would have to have been on the
iki/CRS-RL32933he bill did not include definitions for these terms. Instead, the report accompanying the legislation (H.Rept. 101-790, Part 1, pp. 21-22) set out definitions of eachof the three options. Section 4(a) of the bill would have required that these definitions be considered by committees charged with drafting the implementing
Table C-4. Status Legislation, 1989-1998: Substantive Issues
101st Congress104th Congress105th Congress
H.R. 4765S. 712H.R. 3024H.R. 856
isionUnder statehood, would not confer,Under separate sovereignty, U.S.Similar provision to H.R. 3024.
terminate, or restore U.S. nationality.nationality and citizenship would
§212have been terminated, but those
iki/CRS-RL32933Under independence, citizenshipregulated by new constitution,with citizenship before separationwould have retained it for life, as
g/wexisting federal statutes onspecified. §4(a)
s.orcitizenship repealed, and existingUnder statehood, citizenship
citizens’ status protected, amongwould have been guaranteed.
://wikiother provisions. §311§4(a)
isionNo provisionUnder statehood, would haveStated as policy that students in
followed the languageschools should achieve English
requirements “as in the severalproficiency by age 10. §3(c)
states.” §4(a)Under statehood, official English
language requirements would have
applied in Puerto Rico as in all
Transition plan to statehood would
have had to include promotion of
101st Congress104th Congress105th Congress
H.R. 4765S. 712H.R. 3024H.R. 856
thorized $13.5 million to beNo provisionCollections from rum import tax toSimilar provision to H.R. 3024. §7
illion for thebe transferred, in amounts
, $6 million for voterspecified by the President, half for
§2(a,b)referenda costs and half for voter
iki/CRS-RL32933r ansf er
s.orisionUnder statehood, would haveNo provisionNo provision
leakretained U.S. title over held lands and
required review of such holdings.
://wiki§204, 205, 211
httpUnder independence, property rights
would have been safeguarded
(§302(c)), and land use by the
military would have been negotiated.
Under commonwealth, would have
required review of 8 specific parcels
and commission oversight of San
Juan National Historic Site. §412-
101st Congress104th Congress105th Congress
H.R. 4765S. 712H.R. 3024H.R. 856
isionUnder statehood, would haveUnder statehood, would haveSimilar provision to H.R. 3024. §4a
required election of two Senators asassured representation by 2
well as the number of representativesSenators and Representatives
to be allocated to the new state under“proportionate to the population.”
the 1990 census, with an increase in§4(a)
the size of the House. §206, 207
iki/CRS-RL32933Under commonwealth, would have
g/westablished the Office of Senate
://wikitigation and judicial review
http provisionLegal challenges associated with theUnder independence or freeWould have maintained previously
referendum would have beenassociation, employment andvested rights to benefits. §4(a)
adjudicated by a property rights would have
Under statehood, pending litigation
would have continued, as would
appeal rights. §209, 210
Under independence, pending
proceedings would have been
transferred, except for those on
101st Congress104th Congress105th Congress
H.R. 4765S. 712H.R. 3024H.R. 856
provisionUnder independence, the transitionNo provisionNo provision
commission would have had to
establish a task force to develop
Under commonwealth, would have
authorized Puerto Rico to impose
iki/CRS-RL32933tariff duties on imports, among other
Appendix D: Summary of Legislative
Debates and Actions
During the 101st Congress, the House and the Senate considered status bills, but
could not reconcile the differences. The House passed legislation (H.R. 4765) that
would have mandated that a referendum be held in 1991. Upon selection of a status
option by the voters, Congress would have been required to consider implementing
legislation in accordance with a specified timetable. By comparison, the Senate
Committees on Energy and Natural Resources and on Finance reported out a bill (S.
712) that would have been self-executing (i.e., the status of Puerto Rico would have
been resolved after a referendum, with no further congressional action required). The124
full Senate did not vote on S. 712.
Several reasons have been cited for the decision by the Senate not to approve
S. 712 and the inability of the 101st Congress to reconcile the differences between the
two bills. The chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
questioned the utility of the definitions in the report that accompanied H.R. 4765 and
noted that the debate could not be concluded with the short time that remained in the
101st Congress.125 S. 712 was perceived by some to be biased toward statehood in
that it would have provided for an immediate transition to statehood and would have
applied federal benefits immediately to Puerto Rico, but would have delayed tax
payment responsibilities. Some Senators did not want to take action in the absence
of a petition from Puerto Ricans on statehood. Also, the bill included few of the
enhancements sought by the Popular Democratic Party (PDP). Perhaps most
significantly, sponsors of the bills could not reconcile the gap between the self-
executing provisions of S. 712 and the provision for congressional consideration of
implementing legislation in H.R. 4765.126
S. 712. Several catalysts stimulated congressional action on the status issue inst
the 101 Congress. Some members sought to continue discussions initiated over
legislation introduced, but not acted upon, during the previous Congress (H.R. 2849,
S. 1182). The submission of petitions with over 350,000 signatures to Congress from
1985 through 1987 brought greater prominence to the issue. Also, in his 1989
inaugural address, Puerto Rico’s Governor Rafael Hernández Colón proposed that
a referendum be held on status options, including enhanced commonwealth. Shortly
124 Many of the documents considered during debate on S. 712 and H.R. 4765 have been
collected in Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, Political Status Referendum, 1989-
125 Sen. Bennett Johnston, “Puerto Rican Statehood,” remarks in the Senate, Congressional
Record, vol. 136, October 10, 1990, p. 28173.
126 Rep. Ron de Lugo, “Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act,” remarks in the House,
Congressional Record, vol. 136, October 10, 1990, p. 28313. See also, “Puerto Rico’sstnd
Status Remains Unresolved,” Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 101 Cong., 2 sess.,
(Washington: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1990), pp. 424-427.
thereafter, the presidents of the other two political parties agreed to the referendum
proposal. As noted in a House committee report, “The agreement was viewed as
historic because the three parties had long disagreed on the proper approach to
resolving the status issue.”127 The leaders of the three principal political parties in
Puerto Rico wrote to the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources
Committee requesting congressional action on status. An excerpt from the letter
the People of Puerto Rico wish to be consulted as to their preference with regards
to their ultimate political status and the consultation should have the guarantee
that the will of the People once expressed shall be implemented through an act
of Congress which would establish the appropriate mechanisms and procedures128
to that effect.
One month later, President George H.W. Bush raised the topic before Congress
in his first State of the Union message :
There’s another issue that I’ve decided to mention here tonight. I’ve long
believed that the people of Puerto Rico should have the right to determine their
own political future. Personally, I strongly favor statehood. But I urge the
Congress to take the necessary steps to allow the people to decide in a129
On April 5, 1989, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources
Committee (Senator J. Bennett Johnston) and the ranking Member (Senator Frank
McClure) introduced three bills, each of which provided for a referendum on the
political status issue. S. 712, the more detailed of the three bills, was reported from
two of the three committees to which it was referred.130 No action was taken on the
other two bills.131
127 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Puerto Rico Self-
Determination Act, report to accompany H.R. 4765, H.Rept. 101-790, Part 1, 101st Cong.,nd
128 Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, remarks in the Senate, Congressional Record, daily edition, vol.
129 U.S. President (Bush), “Address on Administration Goals before a Joint Session of
Congress,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Book I (Washington: GPO,
130 The Senate Agriculture Committee did not report out the bill.
131 S. 710 and S. 711 were each considerably shorter than S. 712, which totaled 58 pages.
S. 710, three pages total, described the three status options in very brief terminology (e.g.,
“Independence with full economic guarantees”) and called for negotiations among the
political parties of Puerto Rico to develop implementing legislation. S. 711, 24 pages total,
contained more detailed “Initial Definitions” of the status options, a self-executing clause
for the statehood option (if selected by voters), descriptions of the relationship of the U.S.
to Puerto Rico under the commonwealth and independence options, and future
enhancements to the commonwealth status (if selected by voters).
As reported, S. 712 contained the text for each option that was to be placed on
the referendum ballot, along with details on the potential effect of each option on
matters such as intergovernmental relationships, disposition of federal property,
federal financial assistance, economics and trade, citizenship, and immigration. The
bill provided for a runoff referendum if no single option received a majority of votes.
The statehood provision of S. 712 (Title II) included a self-executing provision;
recognized the constitution adopted in 1952 as the constitution (future) of the state;
retained existing federal land holdings (with future conveyances allowed); recognized
both Spanish and English as official languages (with government proceedings
conducted in English); and provided for the election of presidential electors and
congressional representatives, as well as the establishment of a commission to
identify U.S. laws not applicable to Puerto Rico, among other provisions.
The independence option described in Title III called for a constitutional
convention and set out basic requirements for such a constitution. The bill would
have provided for the transition of authority from the United States to the Republic
of Puerto Rico through a Joint Transition Commission and would have required the
President, once specified steps had been taken, to recognize the independence of
Puerto Rico. The bill would not have affected the citizenship of any person born prior
to certification of the referendum results, but would have prohibited the extension of
citizenship to those born to parents who were U.S. citizens solely because they were
born in Puerto Rico. In addition, the bill called for the negotiation of national
security matters, continuation of federal financial assistance (in amended form) for
nine years, the permanent continuation of pension and civil service benefits, and
negotiations on the continuation of Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Title IV, which set forth the commonwealth option, recognized Puerto Rico as
a “self-governing body politic joined in political relationship with the United States
and under the sovereignty of the United States.” The bill also provided for enhanced
commonwealth status to stimulate economic development. This provision would
have allowed elected officials in Puerto Rico, through joint resolutions, to exempt the
Commonwealth from the applicability of certain federal laws, pursuant to specified
procedures. International agreements consistent with the laws and obligations of the
United States could have been entered into by the governor of Puerto Rico. Also, the
governor could have been authorized to notify federal agencies of the inconsistency
of proposed rules with commonwealth policy, with resultant actions specified. The
bill also would have authorized the commonwealth to impose tariff duties on foreign
imports, encouraged consultation with the governor of the Commonwealth
concerning tariff changes, and required consultation with local officials in filling
specified federal offices in Puerto Rico. In addition, the bill would have established
a liaison office in the Senate and established a passport office in Puerto Rico,
exempted certain television broadcast agreements from federal antitrust laws, and
facilitated the review of federal property exchange.
Issues of Debate on S. 712. The debate on S. 712 resulted in the discussion
of many facets of the status debate. Hearings were held by three committees to
obtain public comments, the viewpoints of administration officials, and statements
from political leaders in Puerto Rico.
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the primary
committee of jurisdiction, held eight days of hearings on S. 712.132 During these
hearings, Senators and witnesses discussed a range of issues raised by the status
debate, including the following: the referendum process (including campaign
financing, voting rights of mainland Puerto Ricans, and ballot components);
continuation of citizenship rights; language requirements; constitutional provisions;
international relations; trade; transition requirements (including modifying standing
tax benefits and continued federal aid); transfer of historic and other property;
financial and economic development matters; judiciary concerns (including official
language for court proceedings, appointment of judges, and jurisdiction); fisheries
and mineral rights; national defense and security; and other matters.
In addition, the Senate Committee on Agriculture held a hearing on nutrition
and food purchase assistance.133 Discussion ensued in the hearing on the Nutrition
Assistance Program (NAP), instituted in 1982. The NAP replaced the food stamp
benefits previously provided to Puerto Rico with a block grant administered by the
government of Puerto Rico. The legislation authorized Puerto Rico to exercise
greater flexibility in designing a program to provide assistance to low-income
families. Witnesses at the hearing spoke on how a change in status would affect
recipients of such assistance.
The Senate Committee on Finance held three days of hearings on S. 712 to
discuss perceptions of the status alternatives and projected cost implications of a
status change.134 Federal benefits, economic indicators, and interpretations of the bill
received attention in the hearings. In particular, discussion occurred on the future of
the Section 936 tax benefit, notably whether it would be constitutional, under the
Uniformity Clause of the U.S. Constitution,135 for a new State of Puerto Rico to enjoy
a tax benefit not extended to other states. In addition to information presented in the
hearing documents, the Senate Committee on Finance prepared a committee print
that summarized tax provisions related to Puerto Rico and the relevant provisions of
S. 712. The report also set out tax implications of the legislation for each of the three
132 U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Political Status of
Puerto Rico, hearings on S. 710, S. 711, and S. 712, 101st Cong., 1st sess., June 1 and 2 (Part
133 U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, Puerto Rico
Status Referendum Act — S. 712, hearing on S. 712, 101st Cong., 1st sess., November 9, 1989
(Washington: GPO, 1991), p. 272.
134 U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Finance, Puerto Rico’s Political Status, hearing on
S. 712, 101st Cong., 1st sess., November 14-15, 1989 (Part 1), April 26, 1990 (Part 2)
(Washington: GPO, 1990).
135 Art. I, Sec. 8, cl. 1 reads: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes,
Duties, Imposts and Excises ... but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform
throughout the United States;”
136 U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Finance, prepared by staff of the Joint Committee
on Taxation, Tax Rules Relating to Puerto Rico Under Present Law and Under Statehood,
According to one summary of the debate in Congress, tax treatment of Puerto
Rico and the cost implications of independence and statehood complicated Senate
consideration of S. 712.137 Some Senators questioned the quality of Treasury
Department statistics that projected net revenue gains to the U.S. from statehood or
independence. In addition, the issue of representation in Congress arose. Debate
centered on whether to increase the size of the House or to reapportion the 435 seats,
in addition to the bill’s provision for a “shadow,” or non-voting, Senator.
Commonwealth supporters reportedly perceived the bill to be biased toward
statehood, particularly the provision that would have provided financial benefits from
statehood in the early years, with increased tax burdens reserved for later years.
Finally, the impact of the legislation on proposals to grant statehood to the District
of Columbia, including the appointment of a shadow Senator, affected debate.
The Energy and Natural Resources Committee reported S. 712 on August 6,
1989, by a vote of 11 ayes to 8 nays, with a recommendation that the bill be
approved. The Finance Committee reported S. 712 on August 30, 1989, but did not
include a recommendation on whether the bill should be approved.138 No further
H.R. 4765. Dissatisfaction with the Senate’s approach led to preparation of139
alternative legislation in the House. H.R. 4765, introduced by Representative de
Lugo on May 9, 1990, resembled S. 711, one of the Senate bills not acted upon by
the Senate committees.
As passed by the House on October 10, 1990, H.R. 4765 would have authorized
$13.5 million for a referendum to be held on September 16, 1991. The bill included
four voting options to be presented in the referendum — “independence,”
“statehood,” “a new commonwealth relationship,” and “none of the above.” If a
majority of voters in the referendum had selected one of the three status options, the
committees of jurisdiction, in consultation with the principal parties of Puerto Rico
and others, would have been required to draft implementing legislation within time
Independence, and Enhanced Commonwealth Status (S. 712, Puerto Rico Status Referendum
Act), joint committee print (Washington: GPO, 1989), p. 51.
137 For a summary, see “Puerto Rico Statehood Considered in Senate,” in Congressional
Quarterly Almanac, 101st Congress, 1st Session, Vol. XLV (Washington: Congressional
Quarterly, Inc., 1989), pp. 356-361.
138 U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Puerto Rico Status
Referendum Act, report to accompany S. 712, 101st Cong., 1st sess., S.Rept. 101-120
(Washington: GPO, 1989), p. 70. U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Finance, Puertostnd
Rico Status Referendum Act, report to accompany S. 712, 101 Cong., 2 sess., S.Rept. 101-
139 See comments of the sponsor of the H.R. 2765, Rep. Ron de Lugo, remarks in the House,
Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 136, October 10, 1990, p. 28314. See also U.S.
Congress, House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Puerto Rico Self-Determinationstnd
Act, report to accompany H.R. 4765, 101 Cong., 2 sess., H.Rept. 101-790, Part I
(Washington: GPO, 1990), pp. 13-14.
frames specified in the legislation.140 Once it was drafted, both chambers would have
been required to meet a series of deadlines for expedited action to debate the
legislation in each chamber.
While the bill did not include definitions and characteristics of the three status
options, the report accompanying the legislation did.141 The basic elements of the
options, as presented in the House report, are summarized below:
!(1) The report accompanying the legislation required that, if
independence received the majority of votes, a constitution
establishing a republican form of government be drafted, with a
transition period of at least 10 years to provide for financial
assistance and commerce incentives. Citizens of the United States
born before the date of independence would have retained their
citizenship; demilitarization would have been considered, and the
President would have been authorized to negotiate agreements with
the new republic.
!(2) The statehood option would have provided for the admission of
Puerto Rico as a state, with all rights and obligations of the other
states extended to Puerto Rico. The citizenship of persons born in
Puerto Rico would have been “constitutionally guaranteed,” and
voting rights in presidential elections, representation in Congress,
and benefits and obligations would have been extended to residents
of the new state. Also, Congress would have provided for a
“reasonable and fair” transition of the economy under statehood.
!(3) The new commonwealth relationship would have been
permanent and only alterable through mutual consent. The new
commonwealth would have been “an autonomous body politic with
its own character and culture” exercising sovereignty over matters
governed by the Puerto Rican constitution, consistent with the U.S.
Constitution. U.S. citizenship of those born in Puerto Rico would
have been guaranteed in accordance with the Fifth Amendment and
would have been equal to that granted to citizens born in the United
States. All “rights, privileges, and immunities” set forth in the U.S.
Constitution would have applied. Federal benefits equal to those
provided in other states would have been assured, contingent upon
equitable contributions being made. Proposals for international
agreements would have been presented to Congress and the
President, with both branches determining the outcome of the
140 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Puerto Rico Self-
Determination Act, report to accompany H.R. 4765, 101st Cong., 2nd sess., H.Rept. 101-790,
Part I (Washington: GPO, 1990), p. 39.
141 The Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, in an additional viewpoint appended to the
report, considered the definitions in the report “morally and politically binding.”
Issues of Debate on H.R. 4765. Compared to the official record of debate
on S. 712, that for H.R. 4765 is scant. The nearly unanimous approval of H.R. 4765
by the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs (37 ayes to 1 nay) reportedly
“represented a hard-won compromise between committee members who favored
widely different options.”142 Differences among Members, Administration officials,
and Puerto Rico’s leaders were resolved prior to the committee vote. As noted by the
floor manager for the legislation during the debate on the House floor, “The
substitute before the House was worked out in months of negotiations with the White
House and Puerto Rico’s parties.”143
No statements in opposition to the legislation were made on the floor of the
House, and the bill passed under suspension of the rules.144 However, certain issues
mentioned by some Members of Congress during the floor debate provided an
indication of the issues under discussion. These included the expedited
implementation procedures (which overrode normal rules of the House), the scope
of the status options in the House report, the absence of a provision protecting the
language and culture of Puerto Ricans, participation of nonresidents in the plebiscite,
the option of including self-executing provisions, and judicial consideration of cases
relating to the referendum.
Relatively little action occurred on the status issue during the 102nd Congress.
Senator Johnston introduced legislation (S. 244) that, unlike the self-executing text
in S. 712 as reported in the 101st Congress, provided that Congress would consider
implementing legislation subsequent to a referendum. Following adoption of that
legislation by Congress, a second vote would have been held in Puerto Rico to ratify
the implementing legislation. S. 244 was not reported out of committee for a variety
of reasons, including projected costs, disagreement over the role of Congress in the
status debate, and concern over language and cultural differences.145 Status
legislation in the House (H.R. 316) that was similar to H.R. 4765 in the previous
Congress also received no action.
Three concurrent resolutions (H.Con.Res. 94, H.Con.Res. 300, and S.Con.Res.
75) were introduced in the 103rd Congress on the status issue. The House Resources
Committee held a hearing on H.Con.Res. 94, a resolution expressing congressional
142 “Puerto Rico’s Status Remains Unresolved,” Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 101st
Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1990), p. 426.
143 Rep. Ron de Lugo, remarks in the House, Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 136,
October 10, 1990, p. 28309.
144 The debate is found in ibid., pp. 28307-28337.
145 “No Progress Made on Puerto Rico Plebiscite,” Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 102nd
Congress, 1st Session, Vol. XLVII (Washington: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1991), pp.
endorsement that Puerto Ricans had the right of self-determination.146 No other
actions were taken on any of the three resolutions.
In light of the lack of progress on the issue in Congress, Governor Pedro
Rosselló and the legislature of Puerto Rico agreed to authorize a plebiscite on status.
The second plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s political status was held on November 14,
On December 14, 1994, the legislature of Puerto Rico approved a concurrent
resolution that called on the 104th Congress to act on the 1993 plebiscite.
Subsequently, during the 104th Congress (1995-1996), action was taken on one
political status bill. The House Committees on Resources and Rules reported
legislation (H.R. 3024) that would have authorized a referendum, a transition period,
and implementation mechanisms on the status issue. Opposition to the legislation
focused on the definition of “commonwealth” in the bill, the proposed referendum
process, and the transition mechanism.147 The House did not act on the reported bill.
In response to the concurrent resolution approved by the Puerto Rican
legislature in December 1994, two House subcommittees with jurisdiction held a
hearing.148 The subcommittees received statements from the major political leaders
in Puerto Rico and others. Subsequently, three House chairmen and one
subcommittee chairman with jurisdiction over Puerto Rico sent a letter to the leaders
of the Puerto Rican legislature on February 29, 1996. The letter noted the Members’
disagreement with the terms and definitions of “commonwealth” that were included
on the 1993 ballot and affirmed that Congress must define the “real options for
change and the true legal and political nature of the status quo, so that the people can
know what the actual choices will be in the future.” The letter ended with the
notation that “The question of Puerto Rico’s political status remains open and
H.R. 3024. On March 6, 1996, the chair of the House Resources Committee
introduced H.R. 3024 to provide for a referendum to be held no later than December
31, 1998. The bill would have required that the ballot present two “paths” before the
voters — (1) continuation of the existing status arrangement or (2) a selection
146 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Insular and
International Affairs, Puerto Rico Self-Determination Part I and II, hearings, 103rd Cong.,st
147 “Puerto Rico Status,” Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 104th Congress, 2nd Session,
Vol. LII (Washington: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1996), pp. 3-8.
148 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Resources, Subcommittee on Native American and
Insular Affairs, and House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on thethst
Western Hemisphere, Puerto Rico Status Plebiscite, hearing, 104 Cong., 1 sess., October
149 Statement of Rep. Don Young, remarks in the House, Congressional Record, daily
edition, vol. 142, March 6, 1996, p. E299.
between independence or free association or U.S. sovereignty leading to statehood.
Under independence or free association, treaties or bilateral pacts would have
governed in areas of shared interest between the two nations; Congress would have
established citizenship criteria for retention of citizenship; and aid would have been
provided as determined by Congress and the President.
The bill set out three stages to be followed in the status determination process.
(The three transition stages would have required actions to be taken over a span of
roughly 14 years.) First would have been an initial decision stage for the two
questions to be placed before Puerto Rican voters. Second would have been a
transition stage that would have required the President, within six months of
certification of ballot results, to submit legislation to establish a 10-year transition
plan, allow for expedited congressional consideration of the plan, and a second
referendum before the people of Puerto Rico on the transition plan approved by the
President and the Congress. Third would have been an implementation stage that,
no less than two years before the end of the 10-year transition plan, would have
required expedited congressional approval of a presidential proposal for self-
government under the preferred status option. Following approval of this plan by
Congress and the President, a third referendum would have been held, with majority
approval required for the results to be considered valid. Should any of the referenda
have proven inconclusive, the existing commonwealth form of government would
have continued. The bill would have authorized grants to be provided by the
President for the referenda and for voter education.
Following a hearing on the bill that was held in Puerto Rico,150 sponsors sought
to revise H.R. 3024 to include a third path on the ballot — enhanced commonwealth.
If approved by voters, the revision would have specified a guarantee of irrevocable
citizenship, fiscal autonomy for Puerto Rico, and other benefits.151 This amendment
was rejected in subcommittee on June 12, 1996.
On July 26, 1996, the Committee on Resources reported out the legislation. As
reported, the bill would have modified the initial decision stage in the original bill by
placing the following options before voters: continuation of “the present
Commonwealth structure,” self-government through either independence or free
association, or sovereignty leading to statehood. The second, or transition, stage was
amended to authorize the legislature of Puerto Rico to call for a constitutional
convention if a vote for separate sovereignty prevailed in the referendum.
Issues of Debate on H.R. 3024. During the March 1996 hearing in San Juan,
Puerto Rico, leaders of the statehood, commonwealth, and independence factions
spoke to the interpretation of the referendum held on November 14, 1993, and the
legislation before the subcommittee. Discussion during the hearing centered on the
definition of “commonwealth,” the differences in culture and language between
150 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Resources, U.S.-Puerto Rico Political Status Act,
hearing on H.R. 3024, 104th Cong., 2nd sess., March 23, 1996 (Washington: GPO, 1996), p.
151 Refer to statement of Rep. Elton Gallegly, remarks in the House, Congressional Record,
daily edition, vol. 142, June 4, 1996, pp. E988-E989.
Puerto Rico and the United States, and standards established by the United Nations
In June 1996, during subcommittee and committee debate on the legislation,
some Members of Congress considered amendments that would have altered
components of the bill. Most were rejected, including an amendment that would
have placed the option of enhanced commonwealth, as approved by a plurality of
those voting in the referendum, in the legislation.153 Another rejected amendment
would have revised the process set forth in the legislation by separating statehood and
independence, instead of combining them in one option to be subsequently
differentiated in another question. Still another amendment would have replaced the
transition period of a decade with immediate effectuation after the results of the
referendum were tabulated. Amendments that were adopted included a continuation
of commonwealth status on the ballot (a definition opposed by the PDP) and
continued referenda every four years “until Puerto Rico’s unincorporated territory
status is terminated in favor of a recognized form of full self-government in
accordance with this Act.”
The House Committee on Rules reported out the bill in September 1996, in the
closing days of the 104th Congress, and amended Section 6 of the bill concerning
expedited congressional consideration of the legislation specified in H.R. 3024. No
further action was taken on H.R. 3024 during the 104th Congress.
As in the 104th Congress, the primary action on the status issue took place only
in the House. The chairman of the House Resources Committee introduced H.R.
856, the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, on February 27, 1997. The
bill, in amended form, was reported out of committee in a near unanimous vote (44
ayes to 1 nay) on June 12, 1997. On March 4, 1998, the bill was debated on the floor
of the House and was approved by a one-vote margin. No action occurred in the
Senate on the bill, but a resolution (S.Res. 279) was adopted that acknowledged
Senate support for a plebiscite in Puerto Rico.
H.R. 856. The text of H.R. 856 was comparable to H.R. 3024 considered
during the previous Congress. H.R. 856, like its predecessor legislation, included
definitions of the status options and provided for a three-stage process — initial
decision, transition, and implementation, with the transition period for separate
sovereignty or statehood lasting no more than 10 years. Debate among Members of
the House and the Administration resulted in considerable changes intended to meet
the objections of supporters of the commonwealth arrangement.
152 See U.S. Congress, House Committee on Resources, U.S.-Puerto Rico Political Status
Act. Because the hearing was held in San Juan, a number of witnesses replied in Spanish
to Members’ questions. As a result, while all prepared statements included in the hearing
record are in English, a considerable amount of information on witnesses’ viewpoints is
presented solely in Spanish.
153 Information summarized from H.Rept. 104-713, Part 1, and “Puerto Rico Status,”
Congressional Quarterly Almanac (Washington: 1996), vol. LII, pp. 3-8.
Some provisions differed between the two bills. H.R. 856, as approved by the
House, included an English language provision, along with the expectation (“it is
anticipated”) that English would be the “official language of the federal government
in Puerto Rico” to the extent required by law throughout the United States. Also, like
H.R. 3024, the bill called for additional referenda to be held in the event the initial
referendum proved inconclusive. The difference, however, was that the referenda
would be held at least once every 10 years (unlike the quadrennial schedule in H.R.
Also, the descriptions of the status options were altered in H.R. 856 to reflect
suggestions from political leaders in Puerto Rico.
Issues of Debate on H.R. 856. As in previous debates, disagreement over
the definitions of the status options dominated. Advocates of H.R. 856 perceived the
bill would establish a fair process to enable Puerto Ricans to select a status option.
Others disagreed, however, with some arguing that the legislation biased the
referendum process toward statehood. Members of the PDP disagreed with the
commonwealth description in the bill. Critics argued that, under the legislation, a
vote in favor of statehood would be the catalyst for congressional action, whereas a
majority vote for continuing commonwealth status would require additional future
referenda “until you get it right.”154 It was also argued that the definition of
“commonwealth” in the legislation was anathema to commonwealth supporters,
leaving them only one option — to boycott the referendum. One Member of
Congress contended that the bill:
[would] deny U.S. citizenship to the children of Puerto Ricans if commonwealth
is chosen ... threatens the Puerto Rican people with the loss of federal benefits
if they reject statehood ... denies Puerto Ricans on the mainland in the United
States the right to participate in this vital process ... neglects our distinct Puerto
Rican history as a people and a nation ... abandons the idea of democracy and
embraces the imposition of the will of the few on the hopes and dreams of the155
During the 10-hour debate on the floor of the House on March 4, 1998, some
of the same issues discussed in previous years were raised again. Some argued that
this bill, like H.R. 3024 from the 104th Congress, was biased toward the statehood
position. Opponents also argued that it included unconstitutional provisions,
established an expedited process that did not allow for sufficient consideration, and
did not adequately address the citizenship issue. Some of the reasons stated for
Senate inaction included the dearth of backing from commonwealth supporters, and
concern on the part of the Republican leadership that statehood would result in
Democratic gains in Congress. The 105th Congress, like those before it, ended
without resolution of the matter.
154 Rep. Roger Wicker, remarks in the House, Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 144,
March 4, 1998, p. H768.
155 Rep. Luis Gutierrez, remarks in the House, Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 143,
September 24, 1997, p. H7738.