(GFR Media) (semisquare-x3)
(GFR Media)

Washington - As a result of the US legislative elections, the debates in Congress about the political status of Puerto Rico and the oversight of the Board may change in January, when Congress session 116, begins.

The Democratic control on the House brings hope to some regarding the willingness to increase assistance to mitigate the disaster caused by Hurricane María, improving access to Medicaid program and fully extending the Child Tax Credit (CTC) to the island.

But, above all, it is clear that from the Committee on Natural Resources – which has main jurisdiction over Puerto Rican affairs - there will be new approaches to status issues and the initiatives of the Board on the fiscal and public debt crisis of the island.

Regarding status, there has not even been a hearing on the June 2017 plebiscite, about which Democrat Raúl Grijalva (Arizona) - who will chair the House Committee on Natural Resources - has a very different view to that of Republican Rob Bishop.

Bishop is co-author of Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González's bill - number 6246 - which she says intends to make Puerto Rico into an incorporated territory and create a Congress Task Force to examine, within a 14-month period, the changes required in laws to make the island, the 51st state of the United States on January 2021.

Grijalva has indicated that any debate on the political status of the island cannot be based on the June 2017 plebiscite, due to low turn out (23 percent). Amid a boycott of the opposition parties, statehood obtained 97 percent of the votes of that plebiscite.

However, the government of President Donald Trump, through the departments of Justice and State, has ruled out the 2012 and 2017 plebiscites as references, and stated that there is no consensus in Puerto Rico about the political status of the island.

"That plebiscite (2017) does not qualify. It was not a decolonization process. There has to be a new process that is of true self-determination," said Democratic Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez (New York), the main link with the Democratic leadership in Congress regarding Puerto Rican issues.

Last week, Resident Commissioner González said in San Juan that her colleague Bishop, as outgoing chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources,  still has addressing her bill on his agenda.

But, at the same time, she said that there will be "a strong expression" in Congress on the status issue and its legislation before the end of 2018.

Although there is nothing specific yet, sources indicated that the Commissioner has talked with the Republican leadership about the possibility of advancing a resolution through which the US House expresses its opinion on the status of Puerto Rico.

The oversight of PROMESA law, the Board and efforts to rebuild the Puerto Rican power grid are under the jurisdiction of the Committee on Natural Resources.

With the Democratic triumph in the House, if members of the Board are tu be fully renewed in August, the balance established by the appointment formula of PROMESA guarantees that there will be four officials recommended by Republicans and three by Democrats, as is the case now.

 As chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources, Bishop - who may be the minority spokesman in January - has called for greater participation of creditors in the negotiations on the public debt restructuring and the future of the Electric Power Authority (PREPA). In that sense, he has had public disagreements with Governor Ricardo Rosselló.

Meanwhile, Congressman Grijalva saw the debate from another perspective. For example, he questioned the Board´s austerity measures, rejected any proposal for the government of Puerto Rico to pay the public debt while there is no economic growth and advocated for the transformation of the power grid aiming at renewable energy.

"No fiscal plan should prioritize debt payments over the health and welfare of the Puerto Rican people. At a minimum, there should not be any debt repayment until there is sustained positive economic growth," Grijalva said in a letter sent on April to the president of the Board, José Carrión III.

Due to pressure from the House Democratic majority, José Enrique “Quiquito” Meléndez, New Progressive Party (PNP) representative, stated that the Board was "the big loser" of last week's election. Meléndez is confident that Democrats will summon the Board to request "less expensive mechanisms that guarantee payment to bondholders."

Although affiliated with the Republicans, Melendez - a critic of President Trump - was also optimistic that Democrats will fulfill their promise to investigate the federal response to the emergency caused by Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, estimated to have caused 2,975 deaths.

"People have said so much about Puerto Rico that they will have to comply somehow," said Jeffrey Farrow, who was co-chairman of the White House Task Force on the island during the administration of Democrat Bill Clinton and now advises pro-statehood groups.

Democrats indicated that, in addition to thoroughly examine the federal response to Hurricane María, they will demand information from the White House on President Trump's sheets and will defend special counsel Robert Mueler´s investigation on the interference of Russia in the 2016 elections, among other things. More liberal Democrat voices, in addition, would like to start an impeachment process against Trump.

The President has already warned that he will answer by using the offices of the Executive branch to investigate Democrats.

When thinking about the Puerto Rican agenda, Eduardo Bhatia, spokesman of the Senate Popular Democratic Party (PPD), fears that the investigations of the House Democrats and Trump's attitudes will generate "the greatest confrontation" in Washington since the Watergate era, and a legislative stop.

Bhatia is also concerned about the discomfort Democrats may have due to the little solidarity they had from Commissioner González and Governor Rosselló when, when questioning in Congress the slow and inefficient federal response to the disaster caused by Hurricane María.

However, González said in San Juan last week that she has good relations with the Democrats, and that she will work closely with Republican senator Marco Rubio and possibly Rick Scott if the Florida governor's advantage in the race against Democratic Senator Bill Nelson is confirmed.

Javier Llano, Oldaker group lobbyist and representative of the insurance company MCS, thinks that with a Democrat House and a Republican Senate, it is necessary to focus on consensus projects more than ever.

Both President Trump and potential Speaker Nancy Pelosi have highlighted the possibility of legislating an infrastructure investment plan, which would have an effect on the island.

Llano said that the agenda should be well coordinated and focused on projects that benefit the economy of Puerto Rico, because "otherwise we will lose two more years in a divided Congress."


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