Legislative Interests

Committee Assignments

In this undated photograph, Senator <a title="Dennis Chavez" href="/People/Detail/10875?ret=True">Dennis Chavez</a> (left) and a constituent from New Mexico (right) participate in a Senate committee hearing./tiles/non-collection/p/part2_19_chavez_approps_unm.xml Image courtesy of the Dennis Chavez Pictorial Collections (PICT 000-394-0433), Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico In this undated photograph, Senator Dennis Chavez (left) and a constituent from New Mexico (right) participate in a Senate committee hearing.
Hispanic Members held far more committee assignments in this era than they did during the 19th century. Seven sat on Insular Affairs, four on Public Lands, four on Indian Affairs, and three on Territories. In part this trend reflected more-liberal House Rules concerning standing committees. Pedro Perea of New Mexico, who served a single term in the 56th Congress (1899–1901), became the first Hispanic Delegate from that territory to hold an assignment on a committee other than the obscure Coinage, Weights, and Measures panel. Perea held four committee assignments, including seats on the important Post Office and Post Roads Committee and the Territories Committee.

Resident Commissioners experienced a trajectory in their committee assignments that was similar to that of New Mexico’s Delegates. From 1900 to 1904, the Resident Commissioner received no committee assignments. After 1904 Federico Degetau received a seat on one panel on the Insular Affairs Committee, which had legislative jurisdiction over Puerto Rico’s administration. In 1933 Santiago Iglesias became the first Resident Commissioner to sit on additional committees. He and Bolívar Pagán both served on four panels: Agriculture, Insular Affairs, Territories, and Labor. Pagán, who represented Puerto Rico during World War II when the United States constructed a major naval facility on the island, added two more prominent committee assignments—Naval Affairs and Military Affairs—to his considerable workload.106

These more numerous assignments reflected the broad legislative agendas of their constituencies, and meant they held more desirable and more powerful committee positions than their predecessors. In the aggregate, Pedro Perea’s assignments were impressive; Post Office and Post Roads was a top-tier committee assignment in the 56th Congress, and his assignment on Military Affairs was a good one. Also, in the decade after the Spanish-American War, the Insular Affairs Committee ranked among the top third in terms of desirability among House Members. When Iglesias served on the Agriculture Committee in the 1930s, amid the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the flood of New Deal legislation, that panel was the third most desirable in the House.107 Without a doubt, the Hispanic Member who secured the most plum assignments was Representative Joachim Fernández, Huey Long’s New Orleans-based lieutenant. As a freshman, Fernández received a top-tier assignment, the Naval Affairs Committee. After serving three terms on Naval Affairs, he left for the exclusive Appropriations Committee, which was the second-most-powerful committee in the House and the panel charged with allocating federal money.108

However, the ascendancy of Hispanic Members to committee leadership positions remained slow. Before 1970, Resident Commissioners, like Delegates, could not attain seniority on committees; as a result, no matter how many years they served on a committee, they were still outranked by voting Members. Although House Rules stipulated that the Delegates and the Resident Commissioner would receive the same powers and privileges as other Members, the tradition of seniority applied only when the Delegates and the Resident Commissioner determined rank among themselves.109 In this era, only two Hispanic Members, Dennis Chavez of New Mexico and Ladislas Lazaro of Louisiana, chaired House committees. During the 73rd Congress (1933–1935), his second and final term in the House, Chavez led the Irrigation and Reclamation Committee, a panel of immense importance to Western Members whose states depended on their ability to access water. Lazaro held the gavel on the minor Enrolled Bills Committee, which standardized the legislative language of approved bills and prepared them for the President’s signature, and became the Ranking Member on the influential Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee before his untimely death in 1927. Chavez eventually chaired two Senate panels, including the influential Public Works Committee. Antonio M. Fernández of New Mexico, elected to the House late in this era, chaired the Memorials Committee for a single term before it was disbanded in 1947.

The Great Depression and the New Deal

Rexford Guy Tugwell (left) was one of the principal architects of the New Deal. Here he is seen riding with FDR in a car through Greenbelt, Maryland, a federally built planned community that Tugwell conceived. He would serve as governor of Puerto Rico from 1941 to 1945./tiles/non-collection/p/part2_20_fdr_tugwell_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Rexford Guy Tugwell (left) was one of the principal architects of the New Deal. Here he is seen riding with FDR in a car through Greenbelt, Maryland, a federally built planned community that Tugwell conceived. He would serve as governor of Puerto Rico from 1941 to 1945.
The economic collapse marking the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 hit Puerto Rico especially hard because it highlighted the island’s dependence on U.S. economic policy and on a single cash crop: sugar. “The coming of the Great Depression simply made manifest the severity of conditions that debilitated the island economy,” writes economic historian James Dietz. “It did not create or invent them.”110 Declines in manufacturing and agricultural output were not as severe as those on the mainland because production had faltered throughout the 1920s.111 Two hurricanes in 1928 and 1932 had decimated entire economic sectors. The tobacco industry, which was the second-largest industry on the island, had grown steadily through the early part of the century under American trade barriers; however, the 1928 San Felipe hurricane nearly leveled production.112 The 1932 San Cipriano hurricane also caused upwards of $30 million in damage, some of which Resident Commissioner José Pesquera sought to repair with federal aid. Dietz likens the storms’ effect to those of the Dust Bowl drought that devastated the Midwestern United States in the early 1930s.113

Moreover, purchasing power on the island declined severely during the 1930s. In the 1920s, Puerto Rico received as much as 94.1 percent of its goods from the United States, more than 39.5 percent of which was food.114 Dependent on imports from the mainland for basic necessities, including rice, beans, lard, and milk, the average Puerto Rican spent 94 percent of his or her income on food in 1930.115 The situation worsened between 1930 and 1933; with wages already at their lowest level since the United States occupied the island in 1898, Puerto Ricans saw a 30 percent decline in per capita income. A similar, if not more severe, rise in the cost of living mirrored this drop; prices for necessities rose by a third from 1932 to 1933.116

Extending New Deal benefits to Puerto Rico tested the Resident Commissioners’ ability to balance desires for local control with the distribution of federal aid on the island. Early in the economic crisis, Félix Córdova Dávila and José Pesquera attempted to stem losses by appealing to President Herbert Hoover to extend to Puerto Rico the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a program that funneled federal tax revenue to local banks.117 When Franklin D. Roosevelt ascended to the presidency in 1933, he urged a series of emergency economic policies and social welfare programs known collectively as the New Deal, and sought to include Puerto Rico in much of this legislation.“One thing that seemed to be very clear was that your problems here on the island are very much the same kind of problems that we have in many other parts of the United States,” Roosevelt noted on a 1934 visit to San Juan. “They are social problems and economic problems, and the same methods that we use to solve them in other parts of the country will be applied here in Puerto Rico.”118 In the early 1930s, Santiago Iglesias spent nearly his entire congressional career balancing the needs of Puerto Ricans vis-à-vis New Deal legislation. Iglesias successfully sought Puerto Rico’s inclusion in the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), a program to regulate banking. Though unsuccessful at including Puerto Rico in the initial Social Security Act of 1935, Iglesias managed to extend some of the legislation’s benefits to children and rural communities in a 1937 amendment.119

Not all New Deal programs aided displaced Puerto Ricans. The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), passed in May 1933, inflated the cost of living as federal policy subsidized mainland farmers, who then produced less, driving up the costs of goods and services for Puerto Rican consumers. Additionally, under the AAA, the island’s farmers were exempt from the provisions of the law and the insular government lost its right to save a percentage of the tax revenue con exports.120 Iglesias attempted to remedy the legislation’s damaging effects by retaining the taxes on agricultural products as originally set forth in the Jones Act.121

Most notably, the economic collapse highlighted the island’s dependence on the cultivation of sugarcane and the production of its only export crop: sugar. Nearly 95 percent of all Puerto Rican exports went to the continental United States. Accounting for nearly 15 percent of the entire U.S. market, Puerto Rican sugar was hugely profitable during World War I with little competition from warring European nations, but the industry collapsed after Europe returned to its pre-war production in the 1920s.122 The economic pressures accompanying the onset of the Depression, combined with the decline of the sugarcane industry, were felt island-wide. Already hovering at 36 percent in December 1929, unemployment rates soared to 65 percent by 1933.123 As a result, the years 1933 and 1934 saw widespread labor unrest, and thousands of workers from every economic sector went on strike.124

The Sugar Act, or Jones–Costigan Act, of 1934 (48 Stat. 670–679) proved to be particularly damaging, and amending it became a focus for Resident Commissioners Santiago Iglesias and Bolívar Pagán. As part of the Department of Agriculture’s efforts to further regulate American sugar in light of plummeting prices, the legislation established quotas for each sugar-producing region based on output from 1925 to 1933. As demanded by the State Department, Cuba, which had been subjct to American trade barriers, received the largest quota for sugar cane after the market declined. Beet producers in the mainland United States lobbied Congress to gain a significant share of the quota. As an incorporated territory, Hawaii also received a substantial quota, leaving Puerto Rico and the soon-to-be-independent Philippines with the greatest reductions in production allotments.125 The legislation passed after Puerto Rico was assigned an insufficient 800,000-ton quota, with expected production exceeding more than a million tons.126

A year after the Sugar Act’s passage, Iglesias submitted a resolution from the insular legislature attesting to the act’s devastating effect on the island’s sugar industry. “The Puerto Rican sugar industry is not only suffering from an abnormal situation but also is being punished by not as yet having received a satisfactory agreement whereby the sugar employers and the workers in general are compensated by the terrible cuts in production in the island,” read the resolution.127 In 1937, when the Sugar Act was up for reauthorization, Iglesias pleaded, “It seems to me this great Nation should not consider treating citizens of one part of the United States differently from citizens of other parts of the United States.”128 But instead of providing Puerto Rico with a sugar quota for export to the continental United States, the law limited the island to providing only for its own consumption.129

“The Great Social Laboratory”

Roosevelt and his academic advisors, known as the Brains Trust, also orchestrated a series of micromanaged relief projects on the island, which proved to be a turning point in Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the United States. The island’s dire economic situation demonstrated severe weaknesses in the colonial system. Members of the Roosevelt administration, notably Ernest Gruening and Rexford Guy Tugwell, determined that historically there had not been enough federal intervention in Puerto Rico. Referred to as “the great social laboratory,” the island became an experiment in localized government reform as well as a jumping-off point for American diplomacy in Latin America.130 While this policy fostered a previously absent professional class, it also had the unintended effect of radicalizing the Nationalist movement.

From left, Puerto Rican Governor Rexford Guy Tugwell chats with Elmer Ellsworth, a PPD official, and naval officer Vernon de Mars at La Fortaleza, the governor’s residence in San Juan. Tugwell’s successor, Resident Commissioner <a title="Jesús T. Piñero" href="/People/Detail/19726?ret=True">Jesús T. Piñero</a>, became the first native-born Puerto Rican to serve as governor of the island./tiles/non-collection/p/part2_21_tugwell_rexford_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress From left, Puerto Rican Governor Rexford Guy Tugwell chats with Elmer Ellsworth, a PPD official, and naval officer Vernon de Mars at La Fortaleza, the governor’s residence in San Juan. Tugwell’s successor, Resident Commissioner Jesús T. Piñero, became the first native-born Puerto Rican to serve as governor of the island.

A major change in the U.S. government’s oversight over Puerto Rico involved transferring the island’s jurisdiction from the War Department to the Interior Department, establishing the Division of Territories and Island Possessions (DTIP) on May 29, 1934. The move placed the management of all U.S. territories in a single office and, more significant, moved Puerto Rico out of the military’s jurisdiction.131 Embracing the change, two local leaders, Puerto Rican agronomist Carlos Chardón and Liberal Party leader Luis Muñoz Marín—the son of former Resident Commissioner Luis Muñoz Rivera—proposed an economic aid plan that focused on breaking up the sugar conglomerates. Published as the Report of the Puerto Rico Policy Commission, the provision was popularly known as Plan Chardón.132 The Roosevelt administration initially embraced the plan and, in an effort to implement it, Roosevelt also created the Puerto Rican Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) in 1936.133 Gruening was named the agency’s administrator, and led a bureaucracy of 53,000 employees at its peak, making him “the political and economic czar over Puerto Rican affairs,” in the words of one historian.134 The PRRA eventually “grew into a vast apparatus, staffed by a new generation of reform-minded professionals,” according to other historians.135

Resident Commissioner Santiago Iglesias offered qualified opposition to the creation of the PRRA and the implementation of Plan Chardón. While noting that the plan was “expected to inaugurate a new era of social justice,” he disapproved of its failure to address the needs of the cane workers. “A large percentage of our population is composed of peasants whose only source of livelihood is derived from their work in the cane fields,” he observed. “The standard of living and education among the poorer classes, although constantly improving, is not as high as we should like to see it, and there is a dire need for improvement.”136 Additionally, as a Coalitionist, he rejected the PRRA’s tendency to favor the Liberal Party in filling its patronage positions, accusing Muñoz Marín and Chardón of creating a “supergovernment” beyond the scope of the local legislature.137 Indeed, led by Coalitionists in the insular legislature, the PRRA soon succumbed to the battle for local control. Puerto Rican administrators, including Chardón, resigned following administrative differences with Gruening, depriving the agency of a local face. Gruening resigned from the PRRA under a cloud in 1939.138

Gruening’s oversight over the PRRA, described by one observer as “one of the most repressive periods in U.S. rule,” centered on larger foreign political implications rather than on altruistic concerns to alleviate Puerto Rican suffering.139 Economic intervention on the island was linked to Latin America generally and served as a way to test the “Good Neighbor” Policy. In his first inaugural address, President Roosevelt promised to intervene to help alleviate the effects of economic depression on the United States’ Latin American neighbors. Interpreted as an “early version of foreign aid,” U.S. policy in Puerto Rico was a means to establish a better relationship with Latin America.140

Luis Muñoz Marín was elected as the first governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1948. His party colleague (and appointed gubernatorial predecessor) <a title="Jesús Piñero" href="/People/Detail/19726?ret=True">Jesús Piñero</a> helped to push the Elective Governor Act of 1948 through Congress./tiles/non-collection/p/part2_22_marin_luis_munoz_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Luis Muñoz Marín was elected as the first governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1948. His party colleague (and appointed gubernatorial predecessor) Jesús Piñero helped to push the Elective Governor Act of 1948 through Congress.
Government intervention in the form of the PRRA also drastically shifted the makeup of the Puerto Rican economy. Agriculture’s share of the island’s economy dropped from nearly 50 percent in 1929 to 30 percent a decade later. However, an increase in the number of government workers mirrored this decline. The number employed by the federal or insular government in 1939 was more than double the number in 1929 (making up 32 percent versus 14 percent of the national income).141 The result was a new, politically minded, white-collar class of Puerto Rican men and women who helped transform the island’s politics later in the 20th century.142

Puerto Rican Independence

The economic upheaval of the Great Depression initiated a wave of anti-Americanism in Puerto Rico that crested in the mid-1930s. Formed in 1922 when the dominant Partido de Unión (Union Party) dropped independence from its platform, the Partido Nacionalista (Nationalist Party), who called for complete Puerto Rican independence, were never a significant force in their own right, but an electoral alliance with the Partido Liberal (Liberal Party) in the 1932 election as well as an increase in deadly protests catapulted them into the public eye. On February 23, 1936, members of the Nationalist Youth Movement, Hiram Rosado and Elías Beauchamp, assassinated insular police commissioner Francis Riggs. The two young men were arrested at the scene and taken to a police station. Claiming the youths had attempted to steal their weapons, the arresting officers shot both assassins dead while they were in custody. Puerto Ricans of all political stripes condemned the outburst of violence and agreed with Resident Commissioner Santiago Iglesias, who on the House Floor called the act a “tragic and brutal assassination” and a “dastardly crime” and demanded an independent investigation.143 Among others, Nationalist leader Albizu Campos was indicted for murder. After the initial trial ended in a hung jury, a new panel found all the defendants guilty. Campos received a sentence of 10 years but was paroled after six.

Senator <a title="Millard Tydings" href="/People/Detail/23181?ret=True">Millard Tydings</a> of Maryland, a World War I veteran elected to the Maryland house of delegates, later served in the U.S. House for two terms and in the Senate for four terms./tiles/non-collection/p/part2_23_tydings_millard_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland, a World War I veteran elected to the Maryland house of delegates, later served in the U.S. House for two terms and in the Senate for four terms.

The increase in violence attracted attention in the U.S. Congress, but congressional reaction reflected a callousness toward issues regarding Puerto Rican status. On April 23, 1936, Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland, chairman of the Committee on Territories and Insular Affairs and a personal friend of the deceased Riggs, introduced S. 4529. The bill granted Puerto Rico independence if the island’s voters approved it in a plebiscite but provided little political or financial aid for such a transition. Moreover, the bill levied a draconian 25 percent tariff on goods exported from Puerto Rico to the United States, a move that would choke an already ailing economy. “Senator Tydings’ presentation of the bill was the act of an angry man,” notes a scholar. “There was no statesmanship about it.”144 Puerto Ricans denounced the bill as an attempt to discredit independence and some city halls, plazas, and schools lowered the American flag at the news of its introduction.145 Resident Commissioner Santiago Iglesias swiftly condemned the Tydings Bill. “I certainly am sorry that I have lived to see the day the great American Government would ask our people to commit suicide,” he chided. “That is what independence, as it has been offered, means.”146  

In this 1898 cartoon, Uncle Sam offers a suit of “stars and stripes” to a young Puerto Rican. The question of Puerto Rico’s assimilation and status remained a constant source of political disagreement on the island and in Congress./tiles/non-collection/p/part2_24_stars_stripes_cartoon_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In this 1898 cartoon, Uncle Sam offers a suit of “stars and stripes” to a young Puerto Rican. The question of Puerto Rico’s assimilation and status remained a constant source of political disagreement on the island and in Congress.
The bill did not gain much traction and eventually died; however, it generated much congressional ire. Tydings introduced a version of his bill five times over the next decade.147 The legislation also incited Nationalist violence. While campaigning in October 1936, Santiago Iglesias suffered a gunshot wound during an assassination attempt. Five suspects were apprehended, and Iglesias continued his campaign event with a bandaged arm. On March 21, 1937, Nationalists planning to demonstrate in Ponce as part of Palm Sunday festivities had their parade license revoked. After they demonstrated anyway, armed police officers fired into the crowd, killing 21 people and wounding more than 100. Two police officers were among the dead.148 The violence, which peaked with the disaster in Ponce, and Senator Tydings’s extreme reaction to it were symptomatic of Puerto Rico’s nebulous relationship with the United States. It was Tydings’s attempt to address the island’s legal status directly on the Senate Floor that transformed a local matter to an issue of national prominence.

Puerto Rico’s Continental Governors

The attempts by Resident Commissioners to balance home rule with federal intervention created numerous political battles with Puerto Rico’s continental governors. 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.149 There were 19 appointees from 1900 to 1946, with mixed results.150

This 1899 image, “Uncle Sam’s Burden,” shows a U.S. soldier carrying three dark-skinned children (representing the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba) in a backpack made out of the U.S. flag./tiles/non-collection/p/part2_25_uncle_sams_burden_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress This 1899 image, “Uncle Sam’s Burden,” shows a U.S. soldier carrying three dark-skinned children (representing the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba) in a backpack made out of the U.S. flag.
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. “As long as the governor kept in the good graces of a president, there was little likelihood that even the opposition of some members of Congress would put his job in jeopardy,” observes a scholar.151 Most had little familiarity with the island before they were appointed. Puerto Ricans often reflexively dismissed the governor’s authority. Governor Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (1929–1932) quipped that unless an appointee had been born in Puerto Rico, he could be the “Archangel Gabriel” and still fail to win the “backing of the community.”152 The son of the “Rough Rider” and the U.S. President was one of the more popular appointees. Upon accepting his post, he read as much as he could about Puerto Rico and attempted to learn Spanish; throughout his tenure, he earned Puerto Ricans’ respect by speaking, however brokenly, in their native tongue.153 However, most governors were frequently at odds with the local political elites. Two in particular clashed with Resident Commissioners, who called for their removal, revealing another fault line between local and federal forces.

E. Mont Reily

Emmet Montgomery Reily, or E. Mont Reily, as he preferred to be called, was a Kansas City newspaper editor and a Republican political operative who was appointed territorial governor of Puerto Rico by President Warren G. Harding in May 1921. While Harding sought to reward Reily for supporting him early in his campaign, he wanted to keep the abrasive Missourian far from Washington, D.C. Even before Reily arrived on the island in midsummer of 1921, his “tactlessness and ineptitude” had alienated many Puerto Ricans.154 The governor’s post required the deft hand and managerial agility of a seasoned statesman, but Reily behaved as though he was a city ward boss, inserting into prominent civil offices Kansas City cronies who had no knowledge of Spanish or basic administrative experience. Most vexing to Puerto Ricans, Reily advocated “100% Americanism,” meaning he expected island residents to speak English, salute only the U.S. flag, and adopt the mainland’s culture, excluding their Spanish heritage.

The Puerto Rico Governor’s office was used as a reward for political supporters, as was the case when President Warren G. Harding appointed Emmet Montgomery Reily, of Kansas City, to the post in 1921. Reily’s tumultuous tenure as governor lasted for less than two years./tiles/non-collection/p/part2_26_reily_em_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress The Puerto Rico Governor’s office was used as a reward for political supporters, as was the case when President Warren G. Harding appointed Emmet Montgomery Reily, of Kansas City, to the post in 1921. Reily’s tumultuous tenure as governor lasted for less than two years.
Resident Commissioner Félix Córdova Dávila led the campaign to oust Reily from office, appealing to Congress to investigate the governor for malfeasance and gross incompetence. On March 2, 1922, Córdova Dávila delivered a lengthy speech asking colleagues “to protest against and ask relief from the acts of an unprincipled, un-American, and altogether unfitted administrator.”155 He listed Reily’s numerous violations of the letter and the spirit of the Jones Act, chief among them disregarding the legislative powers of the insular senate and removing judiciary and executive officials arbitrarily and without cause. To underscore the power and importance of regional perceptions of U.S. rule in Puerto Rico, Córdova Dávila reminded Members that Puerto Rican relations with “the Latin-American people are very close, and the success of the United States in the policy of friendship and brotherhood with our neighbors of the Latin race will depend to a great extent on the success in Porto Rico.” In this respect the Resident Commissioner deemed Reily “more an enemy of the people of the United States than of the island.”156 Less than a week later, Córdova Dávila presented to the House a resolution adopted by the Puerto Rican senate by a 15 to 3 majority, declaring Reily to be “a vulgar agitator and an irresponsible despot.” The resolution requested that Congress formally investigate the governor and asked President Harding to remove him from office.157

Benjamin G. Humphreys of Mississippi, a Democrat and a former chairman of the Committee on Territories, took to the House Floor in April 1922 to argue for a House investigation into Reily’s tenure as governor. The chairman of the Rules Committee, Philip Campbell of Kansas, interjected that the President should decide the matter or that Reily should request an inquiry to clear his name; while the House had the power to impeach Reily, Campbell noted that doing so would be “wholly impracticable” because it would take too long.158

The House never launched an inquiry, but Reily resigned in February 1923, citing health issues. Evidence suggests that President Harding’s patience had been exhausted and that Reily was prodded to leave. The President named Reily’s successor in short order, tapping House Insular Affairs Committee chairman Horace Towner of Iowa in early March. Towner immediately set about conciliating the dominant Union Party. During a brief tribute to Towner on the House Floor, Córdova Dávila read a cable from the president of the Puerto Rican senate expressing the island’s “great enthusiasm” for Towner’s appointment.159

An eight-term House incumbent, <a title="Horace M. Towner" href="/People/Detail/23033?ret=True">Horace M. Towner</a> of Iowa had a cordial relationship with Resident Commissioner <a title="Félix Córdova Dávila" href="/People/Detail/44573?ret=True">Félix Córdova Dávila</a>. Governor Towner supported two bills that Córdova Dávila submitted in 1924 and 1928 to enable the island to select its own governor./tiles/non-collection/p/part2_27_towner_horace_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress An eight-term House incumbent, Horace M. Towner of Iowa had a cordial relationship with Resident Commissioner Félix Córdova Dávila. Governor Towner supported two bills that Córdova Dávila submitted in 1924 and 1928 to enable the island to select its own governor.

World War II and Rexford Tugwell

For the United States, World War II reinforced the importance of Puerto Rico’s location. “Puerto Rico is in a strategic position from the defense standpoint of the Nation and will play an important role in America’s defense program,” Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes informed speaker of the Puerto Rican house Miguel Angel García Méndez in June 1940. “A high degree of loyalty and willingness to make great personal sacrifices are demanded of each of us.… It seems to me incumbent upon every Puerto Rican, as it is upon every citizen of the United States, to set aside prejudices and selfish interests in order to meet the challenge that confronts us as a result of the European situation.”160 The construction of the Roosevelt Roads military base on the eastern tip of Puerto Rico in 1943 not only highlighted federal interest in the island’s strategic importance, but also led to an improved infrastructure such as new facilities including airports, harbors, docks, highways, and housing developments. Resident Commissioner Bolívar Pagán noted Puerto Rico’s role as the “Gibraltar of the Caribbean … the American watchdog at the entrance of the Panama Canal.”161 Pagán addressed Puerto Rico’s combat role in a speech just before the vote declaring war on Japan on December 8, 1941: “On behalf of these 2,000,000 American citizens of Puerto Rico I can pledge the fortunes, the lives, and the honor of my people to fight and die for this great country,” he intoned.162

Appointed by Governor William B. Leahy to serve the remainder of <a title="Santiago Iglesias" href="/People/Detail/15620?ret=True">Santiago Iglesias</a>’s term as Resident Commissioner, <a title="Bolivar Pagán" href="/People/Detail/19298?ret=True">Bolivar Pagán</a>, Iglesias’s son-in-law, sought New Deal programs for Puerto Rico. Pagán also had a contentious relationship with appointed Governor Rexford Guy Tugwell for the remainder of his congressional career./tiles/non-collection/p/part2_29_pagan_bolivar_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Appointed by Governor William B. Leahy to serve the remainder of Santiago Iglesias’s term as Resident Commissioner, Bolivar Pagán, Iglesias’s son-in-law, sought New Deal programs for Puerto Rico. Pagán also had a contentious relationship with appointed Governor Rexford Guy Tugwell for the remainder of his congressional career.
Puerto Rico’s economic recovery was short-lived due to German U-boat activity during the war which limited shipping traffic in the Caribbean.163 By 1942 Puerto Rico was virtually without basic goods, including beans, milk, eggs, meat, and cattle feed.164 The inability to export local products compounded food shortages. A record low of 7,263 tons of cargo reached the island in September 1942—representing 7 percent of the monthly average for 1940.165 Throughout the war, prices for imported food rose by more than 90 percent.166 The only meat for sale in Puerto Rican markets was pigs’ ears and tails and soaring prices on these products forced the Office of Price Administration, the agency charged with organizing wartime rationing, to intervene and fix prices.167 Though few people died of starvation, malnourishment, particularly among the poor, proved to be a lasting problem.168

Puerto Rican Governor Rexford Guy Tugwell soon came under attack for Puerto Rico’s wartime distress. Described as “too handsome to get any sympathy,” Tugwell was a “brainstruster” hired from Columbia University in 1932 by the newly elected President Roosevelt, and served in the Department of Agriculture for most of his federal career. Tugwell’s outspoken defense of the New Deal often made him the “whipping boy” for Roosevelt’s detractors and a lightning rod for the media. Tugwell’s advocacy of government land use planning eventually earned him the moniker “Rex the Red” from critics who equated his approach with that of Communist bureaucrats in the Soviet Union.169 Known for his lofty vocabulary, soft-spokenness, and direct action, Tugwell was eventually forced to leave the Roosevelt administration in 1936 because of his controversial reputation. In July 1941, Roosevelt named Tugwell chancellor of the Universidad de Puerto Rico (University of Puerto Rico). After Governor Guy Swope resigned the following August, the President tapped him to fill the vacancy.

Tugwell’s appointment drew howls of protest, especially from Resident Commissioner Bolívar Pagán, whose opposition stemmed primarily from local political rivalries. Tugwell favored Pagán’s political rival, Luis Muñoz Marín, and the Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party). Yet the Resident Commissioner also had allies in Congress, who disapproved of the governor’s work during the New Deal, including the powerful House Rules Committee, whose members accused Tugwell of engaging in communist activities while administering the Farm Subsidy Administration (FSA).170 Detractors also noted that congressional committees led by Democrats and tasked with overseeing the governor’s performance, were generally ignorant of the island’s current events.171 Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Michigan Republican, submitted a bill in January 1943 to remove Tugwell as part of a larger investigation of Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives.172 Vandenberg described him “as a starry eyed crystal gazer whose reddish dreams have already cost us hundreds of millions of dollars,” adding that Puerto Rico had a “Tugwell crisis” as well as a food crisis.173 The Senate Committee on Territories approved the legislation on January 18, 1943.174 Representative Fred Crawford of Michigan introduced a House resolution threatening to annul seven laws passed under Tugwell’s administration, calling the governor “a dictator over the agriculture and the sugar industry.”175

Bolstered by congressional support, Pagán and his attacks on the governor soon made headlines during Puerto Rico’s food crisis. A proposed and desperately needed $15 million emergency food program, which Pagán supported with the stipulation that Tugwell resign, brought the situation to a head. Primarily out of disdain for Tugwell, conservative elements in Congress allied with Pagán. In a House Agriculture Committee hearing on the food aid bill, Representative Harry Coffee of Nebraska accused Tugwell of conducting “experiments in national socialism,” and the hearing soon dissolved into a forum to critique Tugwell’s leadership. The ongoing battle over food aid inspired two congressional committees, one of them headed by New Mexico Senator Dennis Chavez, to investigate the situation in Puerto Rico.176

The Chavez and Bell Committees

The desperate situation in Puerto Rico, allusions to communism, and the underlying partisanship exacerbated the problems in America’s colonial relationship with Puerto Rico, and on January 28, 1943, the Senate passed a resolution authorizing the Committee on Territories and Insular Affairs to create an investigatory subcommittee to explore the situation on the island. The vote limited the study to Puerto Rico’s economic and social considerations rather than a full investigation into its political machinations, and Senator Chavez was selected to chair the committee. Using a political strategy that political scientists later dubbed “surrogate representation,” the New Mexican Senator took responsibility for the welfare of Hispanic Americans beyond his state’s borders.177 “Suppose we do let them starve,” Chavez said to the Senate. “Congress is responsible for those people,” he noted. “I want to feed those people … and that’s all.”178

The Subcommittee on Senate Resolution 26, as it was formally known, flew to Puerto Rico in early February 1943. “We have no preconceived ideas nor bring any conclusions on the subject matter of our study, and only want to visit the Island with the idea of helping Puerto Rico,” Chavez said after landing.179 The Chavez committee toured Puerto Rico, concluding that the island had an “almost unsolvable” crisis wherein population growth outstripped its capacity for food production.180 The subcommittee recommended that the United States begin transporting the unemployed to the mainland to alleviate work shortages and bolster the wartime labor force throughout the country.181 More to the point, the Chavez committee, and eventually the Senate, supported $50 million in funding over two years for public works programs on the island.182

Five months later, the House of Representatives sent an equivalent subcommittee to Puerto Rico to conduct its own investigation. Led by Democrat Representative C. Jasper Bell of Missouri, the panel dissected the island’s political culture, especially Governor Tugwell’s leadership, often excluding from its consideration the wartime food shortage. According to Tugwell, the House subcommittee had “prejudged the entire situation” and was conducting hearings to expose graft and corruption rather than exploring the underlying economic problems. Moreover, Tugwell said, “the majority of the Committee was obviously interested in discrediting the Chavez Committee’s work.”183 The House investigation, with its broader jurisdiction, was indeed more critical than Chavez’s hearings, which early on placed responsibility with the War Shipping Administration, but eventually refused to directly assign blame.184 Ultimately, the subcommittee report concluded, “Political leaders in Puerto Rico have chartered a course which will eventually destroy individual liberties of the people and enslave them eventually by setting up a form of government wholly alien to our own.”185 Though the subcommittee recommended more study, its members clearly wanted Tugwell dismissed. “We have no experiences from circumstances and conditions on the mainland which can be used as the basis for solving Puerto Rico’s problems,” the committee report said.186 The subcommittee’s wish had nearly come true in early 1943, when the Senate’s Territories Committee voted 9 to 3 in favor of terminating Tugwell’s tenure.187

Next Section

Footnotes

106It is unclear why Resident Commissioners received the additional assignments. See R. Eric Peterson, “Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico,” 16 January 2009, Report RL31856, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.: 3; Tansill, “The Resident Commissioner to the United States from Puerto Rico”: 83; Rios, “The Office of Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico”: 44–45.

107Charles Stewart III, “Committee Hierarchies in the Modernizing House, 1875–1947,” American Journal of Political Science 36 (1992): 845–846.

108Stewart, “Committee Hierarchies in the Modernizing House, 1875–1947.”

109Tansill, “The Resident Commissioner to the United States from Puerto Rico”: 86–87.

110James L. Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986): 136.

111Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: 137.

112Thomas G. Mathews, Puerto Rican Politics and the New Deal (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1960): 6–7; see also Teresita A. Levy, “The History of Tobacco Cultivation in Puerto Rico, 1899–1940,” PhD diss., The City University of New York, 2007.

113Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: 137.

114Córdova, Resident Commissioner Santiago Iglesias and His Times: 285; Clark, Puerto Rico and the United States, 1917–1933: 109–110.

115Manuel R. Rodríguez, A New Deal for the Tropics: Puerto Rico during the Depression Era, 1932–1935 (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2010): 23.

116Statisics on the Puerto Rican economy following the stock market crash in 1929 can be found in Rodríguez, A New Deal for the Tropics: 1–2; Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: 136–143; and Ayala and Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: 96.

117Congressional Record, House, 72nd Cong., 1st sess. (10 May 1932): 9966–9967.

118“Remarks in San Juan, Puerto Rico,” 7 July 1934, in John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project (Santa Barbara, CA), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ ws/?pid=14722 (accessed 15 February 2011).

119See Marietta Morrissey, “The Making of a Colonial Welfare State: U.S. Social Insurance and Public Assistance in Puerto Rico,” Latin American Perspectives 33, no. 1 (January 2006): 23–41.

120The only commodity protected under the AAA and produced in Puerto Rico was tobacco, a shrinking industry. See Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: 147; Rodríguez, A New Deal for the Tropics: 32–33.

121Congressional Record, House, 74th Cong., 1st sess. (28 February 1935): 2748.

122For more information on the sugar industry under the Foraker Act, see Ayala and Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: 33, 35, 38; Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: 108–109; Mathews, Puerto Rican Politics and the New Deal: 4–5.

123Rodríguez, A New Deal for the Tropics: 23; Henry Wells, The Modernization of Puerto Rico: A Political Study of Changing Values and Institutions (Harvard University Press, 1969): 114.

124Ayala and Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: 96.

125Ibid., 100–101; Córdova, Resident Commissioner Santiago Iglesias and His Times: 305; “The Sugar Act of 1937,” Yale Law Journal 47, no. 6 (April 1938): 984–985.

126Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: 171; see especially Table 3.8. Despite receiving a larger quota, Cuban sugar producers were hindered by continued trade barriers in the Jones–Costigan Act that affected Cuban sugar but not domestic sugar. See Ayala, American Sugar Kingdom: The Plantation Economy of the Spanish Caribbean, 1898–1934 (University of North Carolina Press, 1999): especially chapters 3 and 8.

127Congressional Record, House, 74th Cong., 1st sess. (21 February 1935): 2430.

128Congressional Record, House, 75th Cong., 1st sess. (5 August 1937): 8317; see also Santiago Iglesias “Puerto Rico Talks Back,” Congressional Record, Appendix, 75th Cong., 1st sess. (8 July 1937): A1708–1710.

129Sugar Act of 1937, P.L. 75-414, 50 Stat. 905. Pagán took up Iglesias’s mantle on sugar quotas after the former’s death. Yet his request went unheeded. See “Increase Sought in Sugar Quota for Puerto Rico,” 6 January 1940, Wall Street Journal: 9; Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: 171–172; see especially Table 3.8.

130Pedro Cabán, “Puerto Rico, Colonialism In,” in Oboler and González, eds., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States, vol. 3: 518.

131For more on Gruening, see Robert David Johnson, “Anti-Imperialism and the Good Neighbour Policy: Ernest Gruening and Puerto Rico Affairs, 1934–1939,” Journal of Latin American Studies 29, no. 1 (February 1997): 89–110. See also Robert David Johnson, Ernest Gruening and the American Dissenting Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), especially chapter 4.

132Several sources provide detailed outlines of the Chardón Plan. See, for example, Ayala and Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: 101–103; Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: 149–150; Mathews, Puerto Rican Politics and the New Deal: 157–158; Rodríguez, A New Deal for the Tropics: 128–135; and Johnson, “Anti-Imperialism and the Good Neighbour Policy”: 98–99.

133Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: 147; Mathews, Puerto Rican Politics and the New Deal: 130; Ayala and Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: 97.

134Johnson, “Anti-Imperialism and the Good Neighbour Policy”: 96.

135Ayala and Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: 102.

136Congressional Record, House, 74th Cong., 1st sess. (7 February 1935): 1676.

137Mathews, Puerto Rican Politics and the New Deal: 169; Ayala and Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: 104; Rodríguez, A New Deal for the Tropics: 136.

138The Chardón Plan collapsed due to lack of funding by 1941, and the agency limped along until its liquidation in 1955. Rodríguez, A New Deal for the Tropics: 136–137; Johnson, “Anti-Imperialism and the Good Neighbour Policy”: 99, 109–110.

139Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: 148.

140Johnson, “Anti-Imperialism and the Good Neighbour Policy”: 98.

141Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: 138; see especially Table 3.1.

142“Justo Pastor Rivera explica los planes de la PRERA,” 6 January 1935, El mundo: 89. The article is quoted in Rodríguez, A New Deal for the Tropics: 71.

143Congressional Record, House, 74th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 February 1936): 2716; “Puerto Rico Probe of Killings Begun,” 25 February 1936, Baltimore Sun: 2.

144Frank Otto Gatell, “Independence Rejected: Puerto Rico and the Tydings Bill of 1936,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 38, no. 1 (February 1958): 36, 44. Representative Marion Zioncheck of Washington claimed that with U.S. Marine protection, he could clean up the “Puerto Rican mess” in a week. See Gatell, “Independence Rejected: Puerto Rico and the Tydings Bill of 1936:” 36.

145Ayala and Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: 112.

146Congressional Record, House, 74th Cong., 2nd sess. (19 May 1936): 7522.

147Perusse, The United States and Puerto Rico: 29. See Gatell, “Independence Rejected: Puerto Rico and the Tydings Bill of 1936”: 36.

148Ayala and Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: 116. According to Ronald I. Perusse, 19 people were killed. See Perusse, The United States and Puerto Rico: 24–25.

149Foraker Act, 31 Stat. 81.

150Sarramía Roncero, Los gobernadores de Puerto Rico. This figure includes Jesus Piñero, who was appointed by President Harry S. Truman and served from 1946 to 1949 as the first native governor. See also Todd, Desfile de gobernadores de Puerto Rico.

151Clark, Puerto Rico and the United States, 1917–1933: 163.

152Ibid., 164.

153Ibid., 135, 140–141.

154Ibid., 48–75; quotation on p. 74.

155Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1922): 3301–3310; quotation on p. 3301.

156Ibid., 3301, 3306.

157Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 2nd sess. (8 March 1922): 3583–3584.

158Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 2nd sess. (12 April 1922): 5406–5410.

159Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 4th sess. (1 March 1923): 5037–5038.

160Harold Ickes to Garcia Mendez, 4 June 1940, Doc 9-9-82-Politics-Elections-1940; Classified Files, 1907–1951; Office of Territories, Record Group 126; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD (hereinafter referred to as RG 126; NACP).

161Congressional Record, House, 77th Cong., 1st sess. (8 December 1941): 9528.

162Ibid.

163“Sugar Storage Space in Cuba, Puerto Rico Adequate for Present,” 13 April 1942, Wall Street Journal: 10.

164“Moves in Congress to Oust Tugwell,” 18 November 1942, New York Times: 16.

165Office of Statistics, Office of the Governor and Division of Territories and Island Possessions, Department of the Interior, The Puerto Rican Economy during the War Year of 1942, June 1943: 2, Notes and Publications File, Box 19, William A. Brophy and Sophie Aberle Brophy Papers, Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, MO.

166Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: 203.

167Howard M. Norton, “Pig Tails, Ears, Only Meats in Puerto Rico Last Month,” 18 December 1942, Baltimore Sun: 3.

168Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: 204.

169Michael V. Namorato, “Tugwell, Rexford Guy,” American National Biography, 21 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 923–925 (hereinafter referred to as ANB).

170“‘Red Activities’ of FSA Assailed by House Group,” 11 March 1942, Chicago Daily Tribune: 5.

171“Dr. Tugwell in Puerto Rico,” 20 November 1942, Chicago Daily Tribune: 14.

172John Fisher, “Vandenberg Bill Urges Ending of Tugwell Regime,” 8 January 1943, Chicago Daily Tribune: 9.

173Chesly Manly, “Senate Blocks Quiz of Tugwell Rule on Island,” 28 November 1942, Chicago Daily Tribune: 9.

174“Senate Group Votes Bill to Oust Tugwell,” 19 January 1943, Chicago Daily Tribune: 1; “Senators Back Bill to Remove Tugwell,” 19 January 1943, New York Times: 17; “Senate Committee Favors Ousting of Tugwell,” 19 January 1943, Washington Post: 5.

175“Tugwell: Give Puerto Rico More Self-Rule,” 12 February 1943, Christian Science Monitor: 3.

176Robert F. Whitney, “Puerto Rico Asks for Food,” 13 December 1942, New York Times: E10.

177Mansbridge, “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes.’” See also Representative Edward Roybal of California's eulogy of Chavez: Congressional Record, House, 88th Cong., 1st sess. (31 January 1963): 1536.

178“Puerto Rican Aid Sought,” 30 October 1942, Baltimore Sun: 9; Paul W. Ward, “Ickes Opposes Plan to Probe Puerto Rico,” 19 November 1942, Baltimore Sun: 1.

179As quoted in Enrique Lugo-Silva, The Tugwell Administration in Puerto Rico, 1941–1946 (Rios Piedras, PR: self-published): 96. The subcommittee never seems to have adopted an official name. The name “Subcommittee on Senate Resolution 26” comes from Senate Committee on Territories and Insular Affairs, Economic and Social Conditions in Puerto Rico, 78th Cong., 1st sess. (15 December 1943) S. Rep. 628.

180As quoted in “Senators Question Tugwell in San Juan,” 14 February 1943, New York Times: 28.

181Senate Committee on Territories and Insular Affairs, Economic and Social Conditions in Puerto Rico, 78th Cong., 1st sess., 1943, S. Rep. 628, 35.

182“Puerto Rican Aid Backed in Senate,” 3 April 1943, Christian Science Monitor: 3; “Passes Puerto Rico Bill,” 13 May 1943, New York Times: 4.

183Tugwell to Ickes, 18 June 1943, San Juan, PR, 9-8-59-Social & Economic Conditions-Investigations-Bell Committee General; RG 126; NACP.

184The subcommittee report did, however, express frustration with federal officials’ inability to coordinate their efforts or work together. “Chavez Report Thus Far Gives OK to Tugwell,” 8 January 1943, Christian Science Monitor: 9; “Chavez Group Decries Rifts on Puerto Rico,” 17 July 1943, Christian Science Monitor: 7.

185House Committee on Insular Affairs, Investigation of Political, Economic, and Social Conditions in Puerto Rico, 79th Cong., 1st sess., 1945, H. Rep. 497: 36.

186House Committee on Insular Affairs, Investigation of Political, Economic, and Social Conditions in Puerto Rico: 42. See also Pete McKnight, “Puerto Rico Split in Bell Hearing,” 21 June 1943, Baltimore Sun: 1.

187“Senate Committee Favors Ousting of Tugwell,” 19 January 1943, Washington Post: 5.