WASHINGTON — Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello recently swore in his dream team for political representation — two senators and five representatives to match the commonwealth’s population.
They are expected to travel to Washington soon and ask lawmakers to be seated as the official congressional delegation for Puerto Rico.
While their request is unlikely to see much movement from Hill leadership, the debate over Puerto Rico’s future is unlikely to fade away. For more than a century — ever since the territory was acquired following the Spanish-American War — Congress and successive presidents have grappled with the thorny issue.
There is a substantial gap between what island residents, who are American citizens, would like to see happen and the prevailing sentiment in the continental United States.
Only 32 percent of Americans in last month’s Economist/YouGov poll last month said Puerto Rico should be admitted into the union as the nation’s 51st state.
On the island, however, 97 percent of Puerto Ricans who voted in the June 11 referendum cast ballots in favor of statehood. Just 1.5 percent voted for complete independence from the U.S. and 1.3 percent were in favor of maintaining the territory’s commonwealth status.
Puerto Rico’s large debt might be one factor that makes its quest for statehood unattractive to mainland U.S. citizens. With a population of 3.5 million, the island’s debt load is worth $34,000 per person. That’s from a total of $123 billion in bonds and unfunded pension liabilities, which is expected to top 107 percent of gross domestic product by 2018, according to Forbes.
June’s statehood referendum was the fifth such exercise for Puerto Rico since 1967, and its second in the last five years.
Rossello, a Democrat who was elected governor last year, campaigned heavily on the promise of finally delivering statehood to the island. Members of the newly sworn-in delegation will be the chief lobbyists for this effort.
Their agenda is to “educate and promote the interest of Puerto Ricans as beneficial for all Americans,” said Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, or PRFAA.
Congress has the power to grant statehood but that remains an unlikely given the current political climate on the Hill and the mounting congressional agenda for September, which includes funding the government and addressing the debt limit.
The delegation will ask Congress to recognize them as members by the drafting of a formal bill for admission and denouncing Puerto Rico’s current status as an unincorporated territory.
“This means that the island’s path to statehood might include some nuances, like amending parts of the playbook and seeking a unique approach to gain admission to the union,” Mercader said.
The delegation is spending August drafting a roadmap to present to Congress after it returns from its summer recess on Sept. 5.