A Century of... Not Much for Puerto Rico
This is a joint post by Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier
March 2 was the hundredth anniversary of the Jones Act, which gave United States citizenship to many inhabitants of Puerto Rico. An act of benevolence? Hardly. The U.S. needed soldiers. The infamous insular cases ensured that, while tens of thousands from Puerto Rico could fight in the U.S. military, they would remain "foreign in a domestic sense."
Today, Puerto Rico and its municipalities are mired in debt--over $100 billion counting pension obligations. A bizarre exception to the bankruptcy laws prevented it from restructuring much of this debt, although no one seems to know exactly why the exception exists (aside, perhaps, from the fact that Puerto Rico has no representation in Congress).
So what will happen? Puerto Rico tried to put its own municipal bankruptcy regime in place, but the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this attempt. Congress has now put in place a control board, which is prescribing austerity while considering whether and how to restructure Puerto Rico's byzantine stock of debt. There is Puerto Rican representation on the board, and its members include fine and thoughtful people. But such oversight does not remotely resemble democratic control.
Puerto Rico and its people have gotten a raw deal from the United States, and the legal history underlying this "caste system" is an ugly one. Others, including eminent federal judges, have written extensively on the topic. Perhaps representation in Congress for Puerto Rico will arrive some day, although the current President and Congress hardly seem like the ones to remedy the situation. For now, it may be that the best that can be hoped for is a rational resolution to Puerto Rico's debt crisis. If you have not seen it yet, John Oliver's terrific explication remains the best introduction to the debt debacle. It is well worth watching, and the best part is at the end.