PIERLUISI, Pedro

PIERLUISI, Pedro
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1959–

Biography

“Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States is as close as it is complex,” the island’s former Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi said early in the 111th Congress (2009–2011). “But like so many American stories,” he continued, “this is a chronicle of progress and a determined march towards a more perfect union. For me, as for millions of my constituents, the pride we feel in being Puerto Rican is matched by the pride we feel in being American citizens.”1

Pedro R. Pierluisi was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on April 26, 1959, one of five children of Jorge Pierluisi, a former Puerto Rican housing secretary and a prominent member of the statehood movement, and Doris Urrutia, a stay-at-home mom.2 After completing his early studies, Pierluisi attended Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in American history in 1981. He moved to the nation’s capital to attend law school at George Washington University, earning a JD in 1984. He remained in Washington, DC, and worked as an aide to then-Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Baltasar Corrada del Rio before joining a DC law firm. He married Maria Elena Carriόn, a former investment banker who founded a consulting company to advise firms on Wall Street. They raised four children.3

After six years as a litigator, Pierluisi moved back to Puerto Rico and, in 1993, was appointed the island’s secretary of justice (otherwise known as the attorney general).4 In his three years as Puerto Rico’s top lawyer, Pierluisi worked to uncover and end corruption in the insular government. He also built a reputation for his efforts to fight violent crime. The issue was deeply personal: his younger brother was murdered during a carjacking near their parents’ San Juan home in 1994. Later, Pierluisi worked with officials in Congress to strengthen national crime prevention policies before returning to private law practice in 1996.5

In 2008, Pierluisi was nominated for the Office of the Resident Commissioner after the incumbent, Republican Luis G. Fortuño, decided to run for governor of Puerto Rico. The Resident Commissioner is the sole representative for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the interests of its 3.5 million residents. Unemployment and pockets of poverty have long plagued the Caribbean island, and its territorial relationship with the U.S. federal government has been the driving force behind Puerto Rico’s politics. As a member of the Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party, or PNP), Pierluisi campaigned behind calls for statehood and full participation in federal aid programs. On November 4, 2008, he defeated Alfredo Salazar Conde of the Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party, or PPD), which supported commonwealth status, in the general election with 53 percent of the vote. Though neither of Puerto Rico’s two major political parties have official affiliations on the mainland, members of the PNP traditionally caucused with Republicans on the Hill. But because the island relied on federal funding and because mainland progressives tended to support Puerto Rico’s calls for statehood, Pierluisi was more ideologically aligned with the Democratic Caucus than the Republican Conference. Like every other statutory representative at the time, Pierluisi caucused with the Democrats. Pierluisi won re-election in 2012 against Robert Cox Alomar of the PPD with 48.4 percent of the vote.6

Resident Commissioners serve four-year terms (two Congresses) and during his time on Capitol Hill, Pierluisi sat on powerful committees indicative of his earlier legal career: Education and Labor (111th Congress [2009–2011]); Ethics (112th and 113th Congresses [2011–2015]); Judiciary (111th–114th Congresses [2009–2017]) and Natural Resources (111th–114th Congresses), which oversees issues related to America’s territories. He also made inroads into the Democratic Party leadership, serving as the community mobilization chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.7

In the House, Pierluisi pushed to strengthen Puerto Rico’s ties to the mainland by including Puerto Rico in federal health care initiatives and by directing government funding to the island. From his post on the Natural Resources Committee, Pierluisi championed the protection of America’s marine ecosystems and introduced legislation to protect El Yunque National Forest near the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico. And in both the 111th and 112th Congresses, he submitted legislation to create teacher exchange programs to serve high-need areas of the country.8

He also worked to make Puerto Rico safer. By the time he entered the House in 2009, Puerto Rico had a homicide rate more than four times the national average, which Congress blamed partly on the federal government’s inability to send Puerto Rico enough federal agents. In 2011, Pierluisi, harkening back to his days as a prosecutor, introduced H.R. 1550, the Federal Law Enforcement Personnel and Resources Allocation Improvement Act which required the U.S. Attorney General to prioritize areas with high rates of violent crime and to create a division within the U.S. Justice Department to manage the program. Although the Judiciary Committee opted not to hold hearings on the bill, it held a markup on July 20, 2011, approved the bill, and reported it favorably. The House passed Pierluisi’s measure by voice vote without debate a year later, but the Senate took no action.9

More than any other issue, Puerto Rico’s status defined Pierluisi’s time in the House. When the U.S. annexed Puerto Rico in 1898, the island’s uncertain relationship with the mainland—and Capitol Hill, in particular—set the tone for the next century. Beginning in 1917, Puerto Rico has sent a Resident Commissioner to Congress every four years. In 1952 it became a U.S. Commonwealth, a “hybrid” political arrangement intended to give Puerto Rico a level of self-government while maintaining congressional oversight of the territory. After more than a half a century, however, many in Puerto Rico—including Pierluisi—saw that arrangement as a relic of the past. Following the establishment of the Estado Libre Asociado in 1952, Puerto Ricans have debated a number of options for the future of its relationship with the federal government: independence, statehood, commonwealth, or something new entirely. Over the years, officials conducted a handful of island-wide plebiscites to test the level of support for changing Puerto Rico’s status. But for one reason or another, the referendums and reform attempts failed to find a definite solution.10

In 2005, a federal task force charged with studying the issue recommended that if a majority of the people in Puerto Rico supported ending its territorial status, a second plebiscite would be held to give voters the option to decide between statehood and independence. In both the 109th and 110th Congresses, the House considered bills providing for such a process.11

When Pierluisi entered the House at the start of the 111th Congress, he quickly pushed for a legislative start on status. In early 2009, as President-elect Barack Obama was promising to help find a solution to the status crisis, Pierluisi said “I’m giving myself and the Democratic leadership in Congress two years to come up with a law enabling the [new] referendum. . . . Congress will be bound by its results, and we would have solved the problem.”12

A few months later, on May 19, 2009, he introduced H.R. 2499, the Puerto Rican Democracy Act, which built on the status bills from the preceding Congresses. Pierluisi’s legislation was popular in the House, and won over Republicans and Democrats alike with 181 co-sponsors. As with earlier attempts, Pierluisi’s measure provided for a plebiscite to determine if Puerto Ricans wanted to maintain their current arrangement with the federal government. If Puerto Ricans voted to keep commonwealth status, the bill empowered the island government “to periodically hold additional plebiscites on this question” much like a revolving opinion poll. If, on the other hand, Puerto Ricans voted to create a new relationship with the federal government, the bill called for a second plebiscite where voters would choose between independence, statehood, or “national sovereignty” in which Puerto Rico would no longer fall under Congress’s control. A later amendment added the continuation of the commonwealth to the list of options.13 “There’s no doubt that Puerto Rico’s status has vestiges of colonialism, which has enormous deficits for democracy,” Pierluisi said in an interview with the Miami Herald shortly before the House Committee on Natural Resources held hearings on his proposal. “This bill is very important, because it would have moral, political and international weight. You cannot consult the people and not act on it.”14

When the Natural Resources Committee met to hear testimony on Pierluisi’s legislation on June 24, the chairman, Nick Rahall of West Virginia, offered his support. Following comments by the ranking Republican on the committee Pierluisi gave his statement. “The strength of this bill is that it sponsors a referendum process based on legally valid status options, but leaves it to the people of Puerto Rico to decide which of those options they prefer,” he said, pointing out that his legislation would force Congress “to formally consult the people of Puerto Rico regarding the island’s political status.” The Resident Commissioner also pushed back against claims that the bill gave an unfair advantage to statehood. “The intention of this bill is to sponsor a fair self-determination process, not to predetermine the outcome of that process.”15 The committee marked up the bill in late July and reported the legislation favorably in October 2009.

After the Rules Committee cleared Pierluisi’s bill for consideration on the floor, it passed the full House on April 29, 2010, by a vote of 223–169. During the 90-minute debate preceding the vote, Members from both parties criticized the legislation, arguing that it was “the wrong way to go about achieving statehood” and that it was a mistake to focus on status without “dealing first with the very real concerns of how the people of Puerto Rico survive day by day.”16 About 30 minutes into the debate, Pierluisi rose to defend the process—both the proposed referendum in Puerto Rico and the legislative consideration in the House. “The relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States is bilateral in nature,” he said. “For any change in the status of Puerto Rico . . . two things must happen: the people of Puerto Rico must request it . . . and Congress must grant it. Congress is vested.”17

Unfortunately for Pierluisi, Congress wasn’t as vested as he had hoped. After passing the House, H.R. 2499 went to the Senate where, in May 2010, the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources took it up with a host of other proposals concerning America’s territories. In his statement to the committee, Pierluisi reiterated his hope that Congress would pass his referendum bill and thereby “consult the people directly.” But the chairman, Jeff Bingham of New Mexico, underscored the fraught political environment in which the bill was being considered: “Congress has faced significant challenges in the past when considering Puerto Rico’s status legislation, and there are additional challenges, now, as Congress enters the mid-term election season.”18 Distracted by other issues, the Senate never moved Pierluisi’s bill out of committee. In 2012, Puerto Rico held a “non-binding referendum” on status in which voters shot down commonwealth.19

The referendum results, which appeared to show support for statehood but were quickly contested, eventually led Congress in 2014 to approve $2.5 million to fund a second plebiscite in June 2017. Less than than a quarter of Puerto Rico’s registered voters took part in the 2017 plebiscite, which the New York Times described as “a flawed election” after statehood won with 97 percent of the vote. Most independence and commonwealth supporters protested the plebiscite and did not vote.20

In both the 113th and 114th Congresses, Pierluisi introduced status bills including the Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act (H.R. 2000) in 2013, and, in 2015, the more directly named Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Process Act (H.R. 727). Both bills gathered over 100 cosponsors, but the House ended up approving the funds using different legislation.21

Perhaps the biggest status fight of Pierluisi’s House career was also his last. If Puerto Rico managed to change its relationship with the federal government, the consequences would be vast. As the 51st state, it would receive two U.S. Senators and a number of U.S. Representatives, and its government in San Juan would wield much greater power over its finances. For decades the island’s economy had taken advantage of a revenue-sharing arrangement with the Treasury Department that gave corporations based in Puerto Rico generous tax breaks. The policy attracted technology and pharmaceutical companies, but many critics—including a number of Puerto Rican officials—called it little more than “corporate welfare.”22 When Congress ended that program in 1996—it phased the tax breaks out over the next ten years—there was little for the local economy to fall back on and Puerto Rico began borrowing money to cover its costs. The island went into debt, and the economy began to stagnate—made all the worse by the start of Great Recession in 2008.23

In 2013, as the island continued to struggle, Pierluisi made explicit the effect status had on Puerto Rico’s economy in a letter to the Washington Post. “As long as Puerto Rico remains a territory—deprived of equal treatment under federal programs, forced to borrow heavily to make up the difference and without the ability to vote for the national leaders who make the laws that regulate our economy—the island will be in a position only to manage, rather than surmount, its economic problems,” he wrote.24

The unemployment rate rose, and more than a million people lived below the poverty line. Those who had the means left for the mainland. Borrowing and the sale of municipal bonds continued until 2016 when officials in San Juan acknowledged the government had no way to pay back more than $70 billion it owed largely to Wall Street.25

As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico could not simply declare bankruptcy, and with few viable options Pierluisi hoped to avoid a federal government takeover of the island’s treasury. On February 11, 2015, he submitted the Puerto Rico Chapter 9 Uniformity Act (H.R. 870) in the hope that Congress would agree to treat the commonwealth as a state under the federal tax code, giving Puerto Rico the ability to renegotiate with its creditors.26 Two weeks later, at the hearing for his bill before the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law, Pierluisi pressed his case by highlighting “the broad support” his bill had outside Congress. Tax lawyers and bankruptcy officials, as well as a number of the island’s creditors, all approved his plan. “In Puerto Rico,” he said, “where unity is rare, H.R. 870 has virtually unanimous support as well.”27

For the Resident Commissioner, the most direct solution to the island’s problems was statehood and the improved access to federal programs that would come with it. “Puerto Rico’s illness is a chronic condition. . . . The main cause is inequality,” he wrote in an op/ed for the New York Times in July 2015. “It is little wonder, then, that Puerto Rico is in recession, has excessive debt and is bleeding population. Unequal treatment at the federal level, combined with mismanagement at the local level, has a debilitating effect on the island’s economy.”28

After the hearing on Pierluisi’s bill, the House opted to go a different direction. The federal government had no intention of offering the island a financial bailout, nor was Congress going to allow Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy unless leaders in San Juan agreed to broad new oversight. Statehood also seemed out of the question. Facing a situation on the island that the press described as “a brewing humanitarian crisis,” the House passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in June 2016. The bill allowed Puerto Rico to “restructure” its debt in exchange for agreeing to a seven-member advisory board appointed by the President to oversee the island’s finances.29 With a potentially catastrophic default back home Pierluisi supported PROMESA (as a statutory representative, however, he could not vote on final passage). “This bill is an essential first step,” he said during debate, “but it is not an enduring solution.” His support, one of his House colleagues pointed out, came at “great risk politically.” The bill became law on June 30, 2016, just days before Puerto Rico would have defaulted on a number of loans.30

After two terms in the House (for a total of eight years), Pierluisi did not run for re-election in 2016, opting instead to return home to campaign for governor of Puerto Rico. In a heated and at times rancorous PNP primary—in which Pierluisi had to dodge conflict of interest claims because his wife’s consulting company stood to profit from helping Wall Street navigate the island’s debt restructuring—the Resident Commissioner lost by a mere 2 percent of the vote to Ricardo Rosselló, the son of a former governor. Rosselló opposed PROMESA since it failed to include a promise of statehood. But although Pierluisi disliked much of the bill, he supported the legislation, he said, because the alternative—inaction—would have devastating financial consequences for the island.31 Pierluisi currently works for a law firm in San Juan, Puerto Rico.32

Footnotes

1Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (3 March 2009): H2891.

2“Biography,” Resident Commissioner Pedro R. Pierluisi’s official website, accessed 5 May 2012, http://pierluisi.house.gov/english/biography.html (site discontinued); Politics in America, 2014 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2013): 1113.

3Politics in America, 2012 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2011): 1091; Eric Lipton and Michael Corkery, “Couple Gains in Island’s Crisis,” 13 April 2016, New York Times: A1.

4“Pedro R. Pierluisi,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774 to Present, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=P000596; “Biography,” official website of Resident Commissioner Pedro R. Pierluisi.”

5“Deaths Last Week,” 12 June 1994, Chicago Tribune: C6; “Killings Break Puerto Rico’s Record for Violent Deaths,” 26 December 1994, Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL): A19.

6Sarah Weaton, “Democrats’ Campaign in Puerto Rico Becomes Entangled in Statehood Issue,” 3 April 2008, New York Times: A22; Politics in America, 2012: 1091; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.

7Garrison Nelson and Charles Stewart III, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1993–2010 (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2011): 891.

8Politics in America, 2012: 1091; Jeannette Rivera-Lyles, “Obama Vows to Solve Puerto Rico’s Status,” 13 January 2009, Orlando Sentinel: A5; Frances Robles, “Congress Considers Referendum on Puerto Rico’s Political Status,” 23 June 2009, Miami Herald: n.p.

9House Committee on the Judiciary, Federal Law Enforcement Recruitment and Retention Act of 2011, 112th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 293 (22 November 2011): 2–3; Congressional Record, House, 112th Cong., 2nd sess. (1 August 2012): H5619; Federal Law Enforcement Personnel Resources Allocation Improvement Act of 2012, H.R. 1550, 112th Cong. (2011).

10House Committee on Natural Resources, Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009, 111th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 294 (8 October 2009): 3–4.

11Ibid., 4–5.

12Jeannette Rivera-Iyles, “Obama Vows to Solve Puerto Rico’s Status,” 13 January 2009, Orlando Sentinel: A5.

13Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009: 5, 11–12.

14Frances Robles, “Congress Considers Referendum on Puerto Rico’s Political Status,” 23 June 2009, Miami Herald: n.p.

15Hearing before the House Committee on Natural Resources, H.R. 2499: Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (24 June 2009): 5.

16Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (29 April 2010): H3030.

17Ibid., H3031. For the full debate, see Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (29 April 2010): H3029–H3059.

18Hearings before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Virgin Islands, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Puerto Rico, and Political Status Public Education Programs, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (19 May 2010): 10.

19David Royston Patterson, “Will Puerto Rico Be America’s 51st State?,” 25 November 2012, New York Times: SR4.

20Erik Wasson, “Spending Bill Includes Language for Puerto Rican Statehood Vote,” 22 January 2014, The Hill: 6; Danica Coto, Associated Press, “Quest for Statehood: Puerto Rico’s New Referendum Aims to Repair Economic Disaster,” 3 February 2017, Salon, http://www.salon.com/2017/02/03/puerto-rico-gov-approves-referendum-in-quest-for-statehood/ (accessed 19 April 2017); Pedro R. Pierluisi, “Statehood for Puerto Rico Now,” 11 July 2015, New York Times: A19; José M. Saldaña, “A Plebiscite for the Immediate Decolonization of Puerto Rico,” 10 February 2017, The Hill, http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/318930-a-plebiscite-for-the-immediate-decolonization-of-puerto-rico (accessed 19 April 2017); Frances Robles, “23% of Puerto Ricans Vote in Referendum, 97% of Them for Statehood,” 12 June 2007, New York Times: A16.

21Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act, H.R. 2000, 113th Cong. (2013); Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Process Act, H.R. 727, 114th Cong. (2015).

22Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, Hispanic Americans in Congress, http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/HAIC/Historical-Essays/Strength-Numbers/Legislative-Territories/.

23John McPhaul, “How Puerto Rico Got Into Its Current Financial Mess,” 6 March 2016, Miami Herald: n.p.

24Pedro R. Pierluisi, Letter to the Editor, “Puerto Rico’s Problems Stem from Its Territorial Status,” 10 November 2013, Washington Post: A22.

25McPhaul, “How Puerto Rico Got Into Its Current Financial Mess”; Alex Soros, “How To Resolve Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Crisis,” 5 August 2015, Miami Herald: n.p.; Editorial Board, “Puerto Rico on the Brink,” 30 April 2015, New York Times: A30; David Usborne, “State of Terminal Decline,” 23 May 2015, The Independent (London): 28; Nicolas Nehamas and Molly Duffy, “Puerto Rican Debt Crisis Could Hit South Florida, Say Business Leaders,” 29 June 2015, Miami Herald: n.p.; Lizette Alvarez and Abby Goodnough, “Puerto Ricans Brace for Crisis in Health Care,” 3 August 2015, New York Times: A1.

26Puerto Rico Chapter 9 Uniformity Act of 2015, H.R. 870, 114th Cong. (2015).

27Hearings before the House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law, Puerto Rico Chapter 9 Uniformity Act of 2015, 114th Cong., 1st sess. (26 February 2015): 5.

28Pedro R. Pierluisi, “Statehood For Puerto Rico Now,” 11 July 2015, New York Times: A19.

29Tracy Wilkinson, “Crushing Debt Imperils Puerto Rico,” 30 June 2015, Los Angeles Times: A6; Michael Corkery and Mary Williams Walsh, “Puerto Rico’s Crisis Draws Split in Congress and Muted White House Reply,” 30 June 2015, New York Times: B3; Lizette Alvarez, “Weighted by Debt, Puerto Ricans Flinch at Oversight,” 9 June 2016, New York Times: A11; Mike DeBonis, “House Passes Puerto Rico Rescue Bill Ahead of July Cliff,” 10 June 2016, Washington Post: A15.

30Michael Corkery and Mary Williams Walsh, “Island Trips for Treasury,” 14 April 2015, New York Times: B1; Michael Corkery and Mary Williams Walsh, “Puerto Rico’s Crisis Draws Split in Congress and Muted White House Reply,” 30 June 2015, New York Times: B3; Congressional Record, House, 114th Cong., 2nd sess. (9 June 2016): H3604; DeBonis, “House Passes Puerto Rico Rescue Bill Ahead of July Cliff.”

31Lipton and Corkery, “Couple Gains in Island’s Crisis”; Suzanne Gamboa, “Puerto Rico Picks Debt Bill Opponent in Gubernatorial Primary,” 6 June 2016, NBC News, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/puerto-rico-picks-debt-bill-opponent-gubernatorial-primary-n586491 (accessed 6 April 2017).

32“Pedro R. Pierluisi,” O’Neill & Borges LLC, accessed 19 April 2017, http://www.oneillborges.com/attorney/pedro-r-pierluisi/.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Pedro Pierluisi" in Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-2012. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of the Historian and the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington; Government Printing Office, 2013.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Education and Labor
  • House Committee - Ethics
  • House Committee - Judiciary
  • House Committee - Natural Resources
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