Jeff Farrow’s Message at Statehood Forum; 07/02/13

Fellow Americans …

An address by Jeffrey Farrow
Igualdad luncheon
San Juan, Puerto Rico
July 2, 2013
That’s not an unusual way to begin a speech to U.S. citizens anywhere but here in Puerto Rico.
It is appropriate, however. You are U.S. citizens. You want equality and permanent union.
90% or so of Puerto Ricans want U.S. citizenship. An overwhelming majority also wants permanent union.
You can be indisputably an American within a few hours by moving to the States.
There are now a million and a half citizens in the States born in Puerto Rico, almost three of every ten people born in Puerto Rico still alive. No one would question whether they’re American.
There are more than 4.9million citizens in the States who are considered to be Puerto Rican who are Americans.
I was pleased last week to hear Republican Senator Lindsay Graham say “Being an American means nothing about where you come from, your race, religion, background, or ethnic origin. Being an American is an idea”.
His words echoed statements of President Clinton in 1998. “Some people question the option of statehood because of the Hispanic culture of Puerto Rico … To use their culture to bar them from voting rights or responsibilities in our country … is wrong. … It doesn’t matter what your ethnic or racial or religious heritage is; it matters only if you embrace the ideas of the Founders as embodied in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights end”.
And that year, we passed a status choice bill in the Republican House. Stirred up by commonwealthers, nativist extremists and opportunists opposed it with an amendment to require the exclusive use of English in the government of a State of Puerto Rico.
We defeated it with one that called for increased English education in the territory.
And when Commonwealthers again enlisted these right-wingers as the House considered another status choice bill in 2010, we did the same.
As POLITICO newspaper headlined last week, “English amendment is so last decade”.
Puerto Ricans’ use of Spanish has a minimal impact on the rest of the country because of the ocean that separates them from the islands. And 82% of Puerto Ricans in the States are fluent in English.
But, although Puerto Ricans may be Americans, Puerto Rico is not fully a part of America.
It is a possession, and subject to congressional governing authority under the Territory Clause, according to the Supreme Court.
It’s a State for the purposes of most Federal laws — but not all.
It doesn’t have voting or equal representation in the government.
It can still become a nation.
And not everyone here considers themselves to be American. Puerto Ricans who see Puerto Rico as a nation naturally don’t.
Nationhood is as noble an aspiration as statehood. We’re meeting just before the holiday that celebrates the nationhood of the United States.
For the U.S., nationhood means self-government.
It should be a bittersweet holiday for Puerto Ricans who lack self-government at the national level.
Your Governor is one who does not consider himself to be an American. Last week, in opposing statehood he said “We are a nation, not a province of another country. We want to keep being Puerto Ricans”.
I am of Jewish heritage. Some refer to Jewish people as the “nation of Israel.” They don’t mean the State of Israel. They mean us as a people.
But the Governor suggested that Puerto Rico is a political nation.
In fact, in its “Development of the Commonwealth” plan, his party says Puerto Rico would be recognized as a nation. But it proposes a nation that’s really not a nation.
There would be a permanent union between Puerto Rico and the U.S.
Nationhood means the right to leave associations with other nations.
There would still be U.S. laws and courts, although only to the extent Puerto Rico wants.
In a real nation – even one freely, that is, non-bindingly, associated with the U.S., there would be no U.S. laws or courts.
U.S. citizenship would continue to be granted.
In a real nation – even a freely associated one, U.S. citizenship wouldn’t. National citizenship is an indication of nationhood. For the U.S., citizenship means primary loyalty to the U.S.
All Federal assistance to Puerto Ricans would continue.
Even a freely associated state, not all current Federal programs would continue.
This “commonwealth” obviously is nothing like the current status, which is also misleadingly called “commonwealth” in English and words in Spanish that literally translate as associated free state. And it wouldn’t be a freely associated state.
But it is the “commonwealth” or like the “commonwealth” that has confused all of Puerto Rico’s plebiscites, whether on the ballot or not.
And it is the “commonwealth” Federal officials have said cannot exist every decade since the insular government was named the Commonwealth, or ELA.
The terms of the status debate are very important to clarify but may have numbed many people to the real issues.
Should Puerto Rico and its residents be treated equally by the U.S — which also means permanently associated — or not? Should Puerto Ricans have equal voting representation in the government that makes, interprets, and implements their national laws? Or should it be equality under the government of a nation of Puerto Rico?
When we were working on the 1998 status choice bill, a senior State Department official suggested to me that, instead of a choice among statuses, we should ask Puerto Ricans if they wanted permanent U.S. citizenship. If they did, they had made their status choice: statehood.
That’s why I was happy to hear about Igualdad. The name focuses on the real issues.
Justas not everyone wants to be an American, not everyone wants equality.
The week before last, the Governor argued that statehood would make Puerto Rico “aLatin American ghetto” because of Federal taxes.
He ignored the tax and other programs that would pump billions of dollars a year into the local economy.
Perhaps what he ignored most is the incalculable benefits of having more power in the shaping of your national laws than 21 of the existing States.
And, of course, in asserting that the economy would be worse, he additionally ignored how bad it has been.
His own Secretary of Economic Development said last week that Puerto Rico quote is a poor island end quote. The president of New York Fed said quote Puerto Rico’s economy is not faring well at all end quote. With the exception of the mid to late ‘90s,Puerto Rico’s economy hasn’t fared well since the early ‘70s. The income gap with the States has grown since that time.
Instead of equality, the Governor wants different treatment.
Different treatment for a powerless minority can be counted on to, overall, be worse treatment.
Certainly, the status quo benefits some. But it doesn’t benefit most people more than would equality. 45% of the people are below the poverty level. The jobless rate has almost never been in the single digits. The percentage of people in the workforce is only two-thirds what it is in the States. Millions of people have left, voting for equality – statehood – with an airline ticket.
Does anybody really believe that any State would be worse off than this territory has been? Puerto Ricans in the islands are no less capable than Puerto Ricans and the rest of us in theStates.
What would equality really mean to the people of Puerto Rico — in addition to democracy and political power?
Equal treatment in Nutrition Assistance in 2009could have covered 448 thousand more people AND increased assistance for the 1million, 485 thousand who got it — a total injection into the economy of $825million.
This is an interesting story of inequality in terms of political power. Puerto Rico used to be treated equally in Food Stamps, getting funding based on need instead of a limited amount. President Reagan proposed changing the program nationally to provide limited grants. The only jurisdiction for which Congress limited the grant was Puerto Rico — because it had no votes.
In September 2011, nearly 37,000 helpless Puerto Ricans received Aid to the needy Aged, Blind, and Disabled benefits averaging$73.85 per month. Supplemental Security Income would have given them$698.
But it also would have covered 220,000 more. This would have meant an additional $1billion, 580 million
I’m proud to have helped Resident Commissioner Pierluisi and Governor Fortuño triple Federal contributions to Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program to $1 billion, eight million. But equality for Puerto Rico’s program as it exists now would have meant an additional $495 million.
And equality would also expand Puerto Rico’s program from 1.3 million people to 2.1 million. The Federal contribution would be another $1 billion, 128million.
The Federal contribution would be further increased if Puerto Rico provided optional Medicaid services offered in almost all States. North Carolina, the State with the number of people below the poverty level closest to Puerto Rico’s, was to receive $7 billion, 779 million for Medicaid last year. Oklahoma, the State with the overall population closest to Puerto Rico’s, was to get $3billion, 211 million. And Mississippi, the State with the lowest per capita income but fewer people, was to receive $4 billion, 284million.
In Medicare, inequality resulted in Puerto Ricans receiving only 182 outpatient medical procedures per 1,000 Medicare beneficiaries in 2003 compared with 297 in the States.
Medicare spending in 2003 was $2,784 per PuertoRican vs. $6,788 for their fellow citizens in the States. If it had been equal, it would have been $2 billion, 349 million more. And this was before the prescription drug subsidies program was created. It provides subsidie averaging $4,000 a year for those who earn up to 150% of the poverty level.
The new health insurance subsidies program that will begin next year will provide subsidies to uninsured earning from 100% of the poverty level, $23,050 for a family of four, to $92,200 for a family of f our.
Puerto Rico will get a flat $925 million for 2014through 2019. Equal treatment would be whatever is needed, an estimated $6 billion, 750 million.
It’s argued that Puerto Ricans don’t pay Federal taxes on local income. If it had been taxed in 1992, Puerto Ricans would have only paid a net $49 million.
59% wouldn’t have had a tax liability. And53% of wage earners would have received more money from the Federal Internal Revenue Service than they owed.
The Earned Income Credit gives workers with incomes up to $50,270 payments to the extent that they do not have a tax liability and tax credits to the extent they do.
The Child Credit gives workers, with incomes up to$110,000, up to $1,000 per child in tax credits or checks. Workers in the States with any number of children can get the Child Credit; only workers with three or more children in Puerto Rico can.
I’ve been dealing with the question of Puerto Rico’s future status for 28 years. Until last November, the question that Federal officials, committed to self-determination, had was: What do Puerto Ricans want from among the possible options? This doesn’t include an impossible proposed “commonwealth status.”
Last November, Puerto Rico answered. It voted for a beginning of the transition to statehood.
The plebiscite was very similar to the status choice process recommended by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status under President Bush.
At the same time, a governor and legislative majority that oppose implementing the will of the people as expressed in the plebiscite were very narrowly elected.
They have three arguments against the plebiscite. One is that the current status option was wrongly defined as a territory status. In this, they disagree with the Supreme Court, at least the last four presidential administrations, and Congress. As President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status wrote quote Under the Commonwealth option, Puerto Rico would remain, as it is today, subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution end quote.
Their second argument is that is that the plebiscite did not include their Development of the Commonwealth — which had been rejected by the Clinton,George W. Bush, and Obama Administrations as impossible.
They also contend that ballots without votes should be counted. But that runs counter to election law, the certification of the results by the Elections Commission on which they have a representative, and the basic principle in an open election: only those who vote count.
Lately, the Governor and his lobbyists have even been claiming in Congress that their new “commonwealth status” won a majority. In addition to counting the ballots that didn’t choose an alternative to territory status, they claim the ballots for nationhood in a non-binding association with the U.S.
This is especially ironic because the Governor opposed the nationhood in free association option before the plebiscite, correctly saying that it is fundamentally different from the “commonwealth” the party wants.
They also say that status is a distraction from Puerto Rico’s real problems, particularly the economy.
The economy is a very serious problem but as President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status recognized quote identifying the most effective means of assisting the Puerto Rican economy depends on resolving the ultimate question of status end quote.
The Obama Administration supported the plebiscite and didn’t agree that blank ballots should be counted. The President’s spokesman said quote statehood won the majority on the second question end quote. He also said that the plebiscite demonstrated Puerto Ricans want to resolve the status question and the Administration would work with the Congress for this.
But the White House knows that it’s far easier to stop something in Congress than to pass something. Lobbying by the governor and the legislative majority would make it very difficult to implement the plebiscite petition based upon its results alone.
So the White House proposed a plebiscite under Federal auspices – for results that would be hard to dispute. It sent Congress legislation virtually identical to law that we got a Republican Congress to pass in 2000 for a vote on options that would resolve the question of Puerto Rico’s status. Resolve is a key word.
As long as Puerto Rico is a territory, Puerto Ricans can petition for statehood or nationhood. A status that does not provide for a representational government at the national government level is not democratic and cannot be permanent. The current status can’t resolve the question.
The options would be proposals of the Elections Commission — but only to the extent agreed to by the attorney general of the United States as not being incompatible with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.
This excludes the Development of the Commonwealth. It can include one or more of the possible options.
The key difference between the 2000 law and the Obama proposal is that the 2000 law was good for Federal Fiscal Year 2001 only and the new proposal wouldn’t expire in Fiscal Year 2014. So, if there isn’t a plebiscite under the current administration in Puerto Rico, there can be one under the next.
The governor publicly supports the proposal. But close associates were unhappy with it and are privately telling key congressional offices that it’s flawed.
Resident Commissioner Pierluisi has sponsored a different but not incompatible bill. It would require the president to submit a plan for a transition to statehood and commit the Congress to pass such a bill if Puerto Ricans confirm the statehood petition in another vote. 86 other House members have sponsored the bill, including the range of leaders of the Democratic Caucus and eight Republicans.
Gov. Garcia says that the Pierluisi bill is unfair. But it’s precisely the type of bill that the PPD asked for in opposing the 2010 Pierluisi bill, which proposed a process almost identicalto the plebiscite. The party testified in Congress three times in the words of its president quote Let the people of Puerto Rico decide, statehood, yes or no end quote.
There hasn’t been a lot of public Republican support for the proposals of Democrats Obama and Pierluisi but leaders of the Republican committee of Puerto Rico have been effectively working with key Republicans in Congress.
The Senate committee with jurisdiction over Puerto Rico’s status will hold a hearing on the plebiscite and the Obama Administration’s response August 1st.
The House committee has also said that it will hold a hearing. Its chairman is waiting for a report on the budgetary impacts of equality for Puerto Rico. These would be the impacts of equal treatment but wouldn’t necessarily be the impacts of statehood. Senate committee bills in 1989 and 1991 would have implemented statehood on a budget neutral basis.
What will Congress do? I never predict. Because of divisions, the last Congress was the least productive within memory. So far, this Congress is on track to agree on less. The Washington Post headlined today quote Is this the laziest Congress ever question mark end quote. It headlined yesterday “Dysfunctional Congress, continued”.
The ‘air’ on Hispanic issues has been sucked up by immigration reform. Puerto Rico’s status has been unresolved for 115 years but it only petitioned for statehood last November. Immigration reform legislation has been in Congress for several years.
A Democratic congressman called me last week about co-sponsoring the Pierluisi bill, saying that he supported it but Luis Gutierrez didn’t want him to and he needed Luis on immigration. He wasn’t worried about the opposition of Nydia Velazquez.
Consistent with Federal policy, I have always said that Puerto Rico ought to have the status its people choose from among all of the possible options: statehood; independence; nationhood in a non-binding association with the U.S.; and be a territory – which not even the PPD really wants – until Puerto Ricans choose statehood or a nationhood option.
In November, the issue changed. For the first time, Puerto Rico chose a possible option.
The plebiscite was called by the elected representatives of the people of Puerto Rico. It was free and it was fair. Crucially, it was the first limited to possible options.
And, most important, the vote of the people is the highest authority in a democracy.
The position of Puerto Rico on its future political status is statehood. That won’t change unless the people vote otherwise

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