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House Passes the Puerto Rico Democracy Act

April 30, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

For the first time ever, the residents of Puerto Rico and people born in Puerto Rico but living in the U.S., would be given the opportunity to vote on changing their relationship to the U.S. in a plebiscite authorized by the U.S. Congress under a bill approved by the House last night.

The bill, called the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, sets up a two-step voting process for Puerto Rico. The first vote would ask whether to change Puerto Rico’s current relationship to the U.S. or keep things as they are. If a majority votes for change, a second vote would take place asking people to choose among four options — U.S. statehood, independence, a continuation of the commonwealth status, or sovereignty in association with the U.S. The vote would be non-binding — the U.S. Congress would have to vote to approve the results of the plebiscite under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution — but by passing this bill and authorizing the plebiscite, the House is making an implicit promise that they will go along with whatever a majority of Puerto Ricans choose.

During the debate, the House adopted two amendments designed to assuage Republican concerns.

The first, sponsored by Rep. Virginia Foxx [R, NC-5], expands the second vote to include an option to retain the current commonwealth status. Many Republicans (including the right-leaning Washington Times) had argued that the bill’s plan to dispose of the commonwealth option on the first vote on whether or not to change their political status was an underhanded attempt to get a majority to go down on record in favor of statehood where none actually exists. The Foxx amendment would give Puerto Ricans a chances to vote directly on the question of statehood vs. commonwealth status. The amendment was adopted by a vote of 223-179.

The second, sponsored by Rep. Dan Burton [R, IN-5], would require the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission to inform voters that if Puerto Rico becomes a state, English will be the official language and that it is “the Sense of Congress that the teaching of English be promoted in Puerto Rico in order for English-language proficiency to be achieved.” That amendment passed on a vote of 301-100.

The bill passed by a vote of 223-169. While most Democrats supported the bill and most Republicans opposed it, a significant number of both parties broke ranks and voted agains their leadership. You can see the 41 Democrats who voted “no” here and the 39 Republicans who voted “yes” here. The bill has to go to the Senate now for approval before it can become law.

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