Legislative Interests in the Territories

Ben Blaz of Guam/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_28_blaz_ben_pc.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Ben Blaz of Guam was a highly decorated officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, retiring as a brigadier general in 1980. From 1985 to 1993, Blaz represented Guam as a Delegate in the U.S. House.
Hispanic Members representing overseas territories often balanced their desire for greater autonomy with their desire to maintain a political and economic connection with the mainland United States. While the nonvoting Members carefully reviewed legislation to ensure that their territories received the same benefits that were accorded to the states, they also sought greater self-government regarding local matters. After voters on the tiny South Pacific island of Guam overwhelmingly chose a commonwealth relationship with the United States in a 1982 plebiscite, Guam Delegate Ben Blaz said, “We in Guam have embarked on a voyage of political self-determination—a desire on our part for greater local autonomy and an equal place in the American political family.”126 The fact that their constituents had common experiences meant Territorial Delegates also looked after one another’s interests. Speaking for the other Delegates, Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Baltasar Corrada-del Río said, “We have to be constantly on alert to make sure we are included in bills.”127

The geopolitical value of the offshore territories has traditionally been tied to America’s defense policy, and virtually every Territorial Delegate and Resident Commissioner has negotiated with U.S. military officials. Few instances were as contentious as the one involving the death of a Puerto Rican citizen during a naval live-ammunition exercise on the island of Vieques in 1999.128 The incident—which sparked protests against continued bomb training—happened just days after Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero-Barceló spoke on the House Floor about the island, its veterans, and its participation in federal programs.129 The outgoing Clinton administration arranged with Puerto Rico to end the target practice on Vieques in 2003.130 From his seat on the Armed Services Committee, Delegate Ben Blaz paid particular attention to issues that affected the numerous naval and air bases in Guam. In 1991, his unusual request to close an air base there made headlines. Blaz, a former Marine Corps General, asked the U.S. government to relocate the Agana Naval Air Station to the northern region of the island to make way for a major expansion of Guam’s largest commercial airport.131

Puerto Rico, Section 936, and Statehood

The late 20th century was an era of political deadlock in Puerto Rico in which the future of the island’s relationship with the federal government was a major issue in virtually every election. Puerto Rico’s two major parties—the Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party, or PPD), which supported commonwealth status, and the Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party, or PNP), which supported statehood—alternately controlled the insular government. After PNP Resident Commissioner Jorge Luis Córdova-Díaz defeated PPD incumbent Santiago Polanco-Abreu in 1968, Resident Commissioners political affliations alternated between the PPD and the PNP until 2008.132

Intertwined in the status debate was the future of section 936 of the United States Internal Revenue Code. Since 1952, Puerto Rico had been under the auspices of section 931, which stipulated that after liquidating operations on the island American corporations could move their profits from Puerto Rican banks without paying federal taxes. Amended under the Tax Reform Act of 1976, section 931 was replaced by section 936, which allowed corporations to move their profits tax-free at any time. So-called 936 corporations became the backbone of the Puerto Rican economy for the next 20 years.133

The tax breaks drew high-tech industries to the island, especially companies that manufactured precision instruments, alongside many pharmaceutical companies.134 Because section 936 applied only while Puerto Rico remained a U.S. territory, the corporations that benefited from the policy tended to ally with the PPD.135 Few seemed to support section 936 more than Antonio Colorado, who was handpicked by the PPD to protect the island’s status as a tax-shelter in Washington from officials who wanted to rewrite the revenue code. Appointed after Resident Commissioner Jaime Fuster accepted a position on the insular supreme court, Colorado had served as Puerto Rico’s chief economist and had spent years lobbying Congress in support of section 936. The San Juan Star noted that he knew “the ins and outs of Washington” and “more members of Congress than probably any other island resident.”136

Carlos Antonio Romero-Barceló of Puerto Rico/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_29_-romero_barcelo_carlos_pc.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Carlos Antonio Romero-Barceló supported the effort for statehood, believing admission to the Union would signal an end to the island’s “political inferiority.”

Governor-turned-Resident Commissioner Carlos Antonio Romero-Barceló, who defeated Colorado in the 1992 election, became the key figure for Puerto Rican statehood and an opponent of section 936 in Washington. Like his predecessors, he equated admission to the Union with recognition of the island’s political maturity. “By and large we have emerged as a people justifiably possessed of optimism and self-confidence—a people no longer willing to continue tolerating political inferiority,” he argued.137 Statehood, he concluded in 1980, “could show the world that here is a Latin people who have been accepted in the United States as brothers.”138 Scholars César Ayala and Rafael Bernabe have also pointed out that Romero-Barceló framed statehood within America’s civil rights movement and the war on poverty.139 Romero-Barceló predicted that statehood would ensure the island received a larger share of federal money while “[giving] investors a feeling of greater security.”140

When Congress considered ways to offset new tax breaks for small businesses on the mainland, Puerto Rico’s history as a longstanding tax shelter came under heavy scrutiny. In May 1996 Romero-Barceló had called the island’s revenue policy little more than “corporate welfare.” But, recognizing the need to protect the benefits that attended fostering industry there, he argued that it was “preposterous … that tax revenues collected on income earned in the Nation’s poorest jurisdiction, Puerto Rico, be used to subsidize” industry in the states. He worked to replace the current arrangement with a system of wage-based credits for Puerto Rico, but the Small Business Job Protection Act, which became law in August 1996, rescinded what a business reporter for the New York Times called “the linchpin of this island’s manufacturing-based economy.”141

Despite Romero-Barceló’s eight years in the House and the support of prominent mainland politicians, voters in two plebiscites in Puerto Rico in the 1990s favored maintaining the Estado Libre Asociado, the 1952 commmonwealth agreement.142 “Commonwealth is only a name,” a frustrated Romero-Barceló said in September 1997. “We’re a territory. The biggest hoax in history was that Puerto Rico had a full measure of self-government.”143

Yet, greater self-determination was a goal the PPD and the PNP could agree on, one that had been sought since the first Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner was elected in 1900. Faced with House and Senate bills calling for a congressionally mandated plebiscite in the late 1980s, exasperated PPD Resident Commissioner Jaime Fuster criticized the mainland politicians who, he said, had an “extraordinary propensity to get drawn into Puerto Rico’s political status debate whenever it is to their advantage,” especially “during presidential campaigns where island votes in national conventions are at stake.”144

The Territorial Delegates and Resident Commissioners often faced an uphill battle representing their constituents. “I don’t think you can be a Delegate in the House of Representatives,” Guam’s Robert Underwood mused, “and a day doesn’t go by in which you’re not reminded in some way, sometimes trivial, sometimes major, about not being able to vote on final passage of a bill.”145

In the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), nonvoting Members won a symbolic victory when the House approved a change in the House Rules that allowed all Members a vote in the Committee of the Whole House. The Republican minority opposed the change since the four Delegates and one Resident Commissioner caucused with Democrats. To address these objections, the Democratic majority added a proviso that mandated an automatic re-vote if the Delegates and Resident Commissioner provided the winning margin. In the re-vote, statutory representatives would not be allowed to participate.146 House Republicans unsuccessfully challenged the rule change in court. Initially during the 103rd Congress, Republicans demanded re-votes whenever a Delegate or Resident Commissioner voted in the Committee of the Whole. The votes from either Delegates or the Resident Commissioner, however, mattered in only three of 404 votes. Perhaps because of their limited power, Delegates and the Resident Commissioner voted in Committee of the Whole much more rarely than did the average House Member.147

When the Republican Party gained control of the House in 1995, for the first time in 40 years, the new majority rescinded the rule.148 Stung by this quick reversal of fortune, Underwood called the ability of Delegates to vote on the House Floor “a recognition that you are not interlopers in the nation’s affairs.”149

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126Congressional Record, House, 101st Cong., 1st sess. (9 March 1989): 4007.

127Lynne Olson, “Territories Still Have Quiet Voices in Congress,” 14 May 1978, Baltimore Sun: A3.

128For background on Vieques and the protests surrounding its use by the U.S. Navy, see Katherine McCaffery, Military Power and Popular Protest: The U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002); and César Ayala and José Bolívar, Battleship Vieques: Puerto Rico from World War II to the Korean War (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2011).

129Congress and the Nation 1997–2001, vol. 10 (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2002): 290; Congressional Record, House, 106th Cong., 1st sess. (13 April 1999): 6270.

130The House Armed Services Committee attempted to change the Clinton agreement with a provision in the 2001 defense authorization act, H.R. 4205 (H. Rep. 106-616), that would allow the navy to resume training “without interference” until 2003. Many Members, especially those of Puerto Rican descent, opposed the resumption of military training on Vieques. See Congress and the Nation 1997–2001: 291; Congressional Record, House, 106th Cong., 2nd sess. (18 May 2000): 8523; Congressional Record, House, 106th Cong., 2nd sess. (18 May 2000): 8520.

131Gwen Ifill, “Guam, against the Tide, Wants Air Base Closed,” 20 April 1991, New York Times: 6; Bernard E. Trainor, “Lack of Vote Doesn’t Deter Delegate from Guam,” 23 February 1988, New York Times: B6; Ron Scherer, “‘Aviation Ghost Town’: Guam Lobbies for US Base to Close,” 20 August 1991, Christian Science Monitor: 6.

132Resident Commissioners serving during this period alternated between PNP and PPD candidates, except for Jaime Fuster and Antonio Colorado. After Fuster, a PPD member, resigned his seat in 1992, Colorado (a member of the same party) was appointed as his replacement. Carlos Romero-Barceló of the PNP defeated Colorado in the 1992 election. In 2008 PNP Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi broke the cycle by winning election after his fellow party member Luis G. Fortuño declined to run for re-election to make a (successful) bid for governor.

133César J. Ayala and Rafael Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History since 1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007): 268–269. For an in-depth look at section 936 and Puerto Rican politics, see Sara Lynn Grusky, “Political Power in Puerto Rico: Bankers, Pharmaceuticals, and the State,” (Ph.D. diss., Howard University, 1994).

134James L. Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986): 300–301.

135For a discussion of 936 corporations and their connection to the PPD, see Maria Bird Pico, “Romero Leads Colorado in Campaign Fundraising,” 22 October 1992, San Juan Star: 17.

136Harry Turner, “Antonio Colorado Sworn In as Resident Commissioner,” 5 March 1992, San Juan Star: 2. See also Harry Turner, “Section 936 Critics Fail to Awaken Opposition,” 7 March 1992, San Juan Star: 3.

137Carlos Romero-Barceló, “Puerto Rico, U.S.A.: The Case for Statehood,” Foreign Affairs 59 (Fall 1980): 62–63.

138Joanne Omang, “Puerto Rico in Political Turmoil,” 20 August 1978, Washington Post: C1.

139Ayala and Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: 277.

140Interview with Carlos Romero-Barceló, Governor of Puerto Rico, “Should Puerto Rico Be a State?,” 11 April 1977, U.S. News & World Report: 47.

141First quotation from the Congressional Record, House, 104th Cong., 2nd sess. (21 May 1996): 11989. See also Dan Burton and Peter Deutsch, “It’s Time to Reform the Puerto Rico Tax Credit,” 16 January 1996, Christian Science Monitor: 18. Second quotation from, Doreen A. Hemlock, “Puerto Rico Loses Its Edge,” 21 September 1996, New York Times: 31; see also, Larry Luxner, “Puerto Rico’s Star Losing Its Luster,” 8 December 1997, Journal of Commerce: C7.

142In November 1993, an island-wide plebiscite revealed a razor-thin margin: 48 percent for commonwealth, 46 percent for statehood, and 4 percent for independence. The 1998 plebiscite ended with a similar result. Fernando Bayron Toro, Elecciones y partidos políticos de Puerto Rico, 1809–2000 (Mayagüez: Editorial Isla, 2003): 354–355.

143Guy Gugliotta, “Puerto Rico’s State of Uncertainty,” 16 September 1997, Washington Post: A15.

144Congressional Record, Extension of Remarks, 100th Cong., 1st sess. (14 May 1987): 12552. See, for example, H. J. Res. 218 (100th Congress) introduced by Representative Ron Dellums of California calling for independence; S. 1182 (100th Congress) introduced by Senator Bob Dole of Kansas calling for statehood; and H.R. 3536 (101st Congress), introduced by Representative Robert Lagomarsino of California, calling for a referendum on status.

145Jennifer Yachnin, “Guam Delegate Hopes to Exchange Long Flights for Governorship,” 26 September 2002, Roll Call: n.p.

146Congress and the Nation 1993–1996, vol. 9 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1998): 881.

147Congress and the Nation 1993–1996: 881–882.

148When Democrats regained control of the chamber for the 110th and 111th Congresses (2007– 2011), the rule was again changed to allow the vote in the Committee of the Whole House. When Republicans regained control of the chamber in the 112th Congress (2011–2013), it was again repealed.

149Congress and the Nation 1993–1996: 888; Eamon Javers, “Samoan Delegate: I Fought in Vietnam But I Can’t Vote in the U.S. Congress,” 18 January 1995, The Hill: n.p.