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Puerto Rico - Government

Many whites in the United States subscribed to decades-old beliefs that stereotyped Hispanics, especially Puerto Ricans, as “dark-skinned, childlike, poor, and primitive” and unfit to govern themselves. When the United States acquired Puerto Rico in 1899, Secretary of War Elihu Root said, “Before the people of Porto Rico can be fully entrusted with self-government, they must first learn the lesson of self-control and respect for the principles of the constitutional government.”

Under Spanish rule, Puerto Rico had several governors. The governors were selected by the King of Spain. In 1897, the Queen of Spain signed the Autonomy Papers, which gave Puerto Rico the right to govern itself. Under the Autonomy Government, Puerto Rico had a Parliament consisting of two houses: The House of Representatives and the House of Administrators. The members of the House of Representatives were elected by the people. The House of Administrators was composed of members nominated by the General Governor, who represented Spain on the Island. The General Governor had supreme authority under the new regime, following the recommendation of the Council Ministers of Spain. The Governor had the authority to nominate the members of the Cabinet and the power to interpret the Spanish Laws on the Island. At the same time there were many revised parties formed from the existing major parties. These new political groups began to adopt a new philosophy and to restructure their government within the outline set up by the Autonomy Papers. The Liberal Party was reformed as the Autonomista Party; the Reformist Party was revised, and new parties such as the Popular and Republican were formed.

The Foraker and Jones Acts empowered the U.S. President to appoint a territorial governor for Puerto Rico, with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. There were 19 appointees from 1900 to 1946, with mixed results. Many Puerto Ricans considered continental governors illegitimate and treated them accordingly. Appointees were beholden only to their presidential patrons and therefore were not directly accountable to those they governed.

Puerto Rico directly elects 1 member by simple majority vote to serve a 4-year term as a commissioner to the US House of Representatives; the commissioner can vote when serving on a committee and when the House meets as the Committee of the Whole House, but not when legislation is submitted for a “full floor” House vote.

Before World War II, islanders elected their representatives in the insular house and senate, but they could not elect their own governor. Moreover, any decisions made by Puerto Rico’s legislature could be nullified or modified by the executive council, a board of non-Puerto Ricans selected by the U.S. President. From its inception in 1917, Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners had worked to mitigate the effects of the Jones Act and gain more autonomy (and federal resources) for the island.

The Commonwealth began to take shape in 1950 e1, under the governance and direction of Don Luis Munoz Marin. In that year, the then Resident Commissioner, Don Antonio Fernós, presented, as did two federal senators (Joseph O'Mahoney, Democrat, and Hugh Butler, Republican), a bill providing for "the organization of a Constitutional Government by The people of Puerto Rico. "

The administration of President Truman and Congress welcomed the bill, which became Law 600 of the United States Congress, on July 3, 1950, the day President Truman signed it. The Puerto Rican Legislative Assembly then approved a referendum, held on June 4, 1951. On that day, Puerto Rican voters accepted by their votes to draft their own Constitution, depositing at the polls 387,016 votes in favor and 119,169 in Against. The following 27 of August, the delegates to the Constituent Assembly were chosen. 70 members were elected by the Popular Democratic Party, 15 by the Puerto Rican State Party and 7 by the Socialist Party. The members of the Puerto Rican Independence Party abstained from voting in these elections.

The Constituent Assembly drafted the Constitution. Section 20 of the constitution contained a bill of rights that extended beyond the U.S. Constitution’s. Borrowed from the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it protected the right to work, a standard of living “adequate for health and well-being,” social services, and special care for women and children. On March 3, 1952 it was submitted to the people of Puerto Rico for their acceptance or rejection: 374,649 voted in favor and 82,923 against. On July 25, 1952, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was proclaimed in a ceremony presided over by its creator, Luis Muñoz Marín.

After the creation of the Estado Libre Asociado (ELA) in 1952, the role of Resident Commissioners had changed from advocating for greater autonomy to that of a “cost-plus lobbyist” who appealed to Democrats and Republicans for resources in a nonconfrontational manner.

The position of Resident Commissioner, which Congress created for Puerto Rico, echoed the island’s ambiguous status. Like Territorial Delegates, the Resident Commissioner had legislative responsibilities, but unlike Territorial Delegates, the Resident Commissioner was “entitled to official recognition as such by all [executive] Departments.” Also, although the Resident Commissioner was a Member of Congress, he was obligated to present his certificate of election to the State Department as if he were a foreign diplomat.62 The first Resident Commissioner, Federico Degetau, said it was “difficult, from a reading of the law, for many people to determine whether the commissioner was elected by the people to represent them or to represent the government of the island … in other words, whether he is an official of the local or of the Federal Government.”

The status of Resident Commissioners and Territorial Delegates was decidedly secondary compared with that of their voting colleagues. While Resident Commissioners and Territorial Delegates were eventually allowed to hold committee assignments and introduce legislation as third-party candidates, they did not receive support from the Democratic Caucus or the Republican Conference. However, because statutory representatives lacked official ties to a major party, they could seek the support of both Democrats and Republicans. Many Resident Commissioners used their circumscribed office to the fullest extent possible by participating in committee debate, introducing amendments, testifying before House and Senate panels, and cajoling and lobbying Members from both chambers in private conversations and at social gatherings.

Clarence Miller of Minnesota, a high-ranking Republican on the Insular Affairs Committee, recalled that Resident Commissioner Luis Muñoz Rivera was “persistent and solicitous” regarding the creation of a more democratic government in Puerto Rico. “I do not know of anyone who could have been more insistent than he has been during all these years,” he said.

Even as Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners acquired more institutional privileges after the passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, their overall power and influence in Washington and Puerto Rico decreased because of the passage of the Elective Governor Act of 1948 and the institution of commonwealth status in 1952.

The Puerto Rican electorate’s “desire for change” extended the duties and responsibilities of the Resident Commissioner, which had been a talking point during the 1968 campaign for the office. Until that point, the Resident Commissioner’s role in the House had been unique. The Resident Commissioner sat on committees whose jurisdictions affected Puerto Rico, but could not gain seniority or vote during markup. He could introduce legislation on the House Floor but was unable to vote on its final passage. Thus, the office of the Resident Commissioner often functioned more like a lobbying operation than a seat in the national legislature.

The islands's local government mirrors that of the United States; the bicameral Legislative Assembly is split into a Senate and House of Representatives. Puerto Rico elects a new legislature and governor every 4 years. Governors can serve a maximum of two consecutive terms. The Governor appoints a cabinet consisting of his or her department heads. The bicameral legislature is made up of two houses; the House of Representatives has 54 members and the Senate 28. Both houses are popularly elected. The government operates on a model similar to that of the United States, and Puerto Rico is set up like one of the 50 states. The island has 78 political districts and each has its own local political machine and locally elected officials such as city mayors and town councils.

Puerto Rico has had an elected Governor since 1948. The Crawford–Butler Elected Governor Act (P.L. 80-362) passed with widespread bipartisan support in the final minutes of the first session of the 80th Congress (1947–1949). The measure was the first major change to Puerto Rican governance since the Jones Act in 1917. The Executive Power is exercised by the Governor, who leads a cabinet conformed by the heads of the commonwealth's executive departments, who in turn must be ratified by the Legislature. The Governor is elected by popular vote for a four-year term (no term limits), which begins on the second day of January after the year of his election and ends on the date his successor takes office. In the case of the death, resignation, or removal, of the Governor, the Secretary of State of Puerto Rico succeeds the Governor. In case the Secretary of State is unwilling or unable to assume it, the Attorney General (or, as the position is known, the Justice Department Secretary) would assume the governorship, followed by the Secretary of Treasury.

The Legislative Power resides in the Senate and in the Chamber of Representatives. The Senate consists of 27 members, 2 per electoral district, and 11 elected according to the different districts proportion of population. Two extra seats are granted in each house to the opposition if necessary to limit any party's control to two thirds. The Chamber of Representatives consists of 51 members, one per electoral district and 11 elected proportionally. Legislators are popularly elected to four-year terms. The bicameral legislature determines how to spend the island's tax revenue. Unless specifically stated, Puerto Rico is also subject to all laws and most regulations of the U.S. government, which sometimes cause jurisdictional problems. Most U.S. agencies are represented on the island. The judicial branch is led by the Jefe del Tribunal Supremo de Puerto Rico, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who presides over the Court of Appeals, Superior Court, District Courts, and Municipal Courts. The legal system is a mix of common and civil law, and attorneys in Puerto Rico must be bilingual to move between the local courts, which speak Spanish, and the federal courts, which use English.

Under the US Constitution, residents of Puerto Rico do not vote in elections for US president and vice president; however, they may vote in Democratic and Republican party presidential primary elections. Puerto Rico now participates in U.S. presidential primaries and sends delegates to the national political conventions, but it still does not have any voting representation in U.S. Congress, nor do Puerto Ricans vote for the President unless they reside in one of the 50 states. Puerto Ricans living in swing states — especially Florida, where thousands of Puerto Ricans have moved amid worsening economic crisis on the island — could play a pivotal role in deciding the outcome of the presidential race.

Puerto Rico’s ability to manage its own debt crisis has been crippled by its legal status as a U.S. territory, which bars the island from declaring bankruptcy. The governor sits under a unique shadow cast by the fiscal control board that the U.S. Congress set up this year for the island, which further restricts the power of the island’s politicians. Created through the controversial bipartisan-supported Promesa bill as a solution to the deep economic crisis sparked by Puerto Rico’s US$73 billion debt load, the Obama-appointed fiscal control board overrides the governor in controlling the island’s finances. The board is set to keep a hold on economic controls, including lowering the minimum wage and slashing public spending, until at least 2020. Should Puerto Rico strongly indicate by vote and formal request its desire to become the 51st state, all that Congress would have to do is pass an enabling act by simple majority of both houses and have it signed by the President. There are three standards for statehood consideration: (1) that the new citizens abide by the American form of government, (2) that the majority of the commonwealth’s electorate wants statehood, and (3) that they be able to meet their state and federal obligations.

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