Not invited to the grand old party.

Photographer: Joe Raedle

GOP Won't Help Puerto Rico

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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Puerto Rico is imploding. The administration of President Barack Obama says that only swift congressional action can avert a string of impending defaults on $73 billion in debt that could lead to a "humanitarian crisis."

Don't hold your breath. The Republicans who control Congress belong to a party that has shown little interest in the fate of Puerto Rico. Recently or ever.

Start with the attendance at Thursday's hearing on Puerto Rico by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. (Aficionados may remember  it as the erstwhile Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, hence the inclusion of Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories in its bailiwick.)

Although six of 10 Democratic senators showed up, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the lone wingman I saw for Republican chair Lisa Murkowski was Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming. The other 10 Republicans looked to be AWOL.

After deploying her party's first gambit to avoid taking action -- they didn't have accurate enough financial information -- Murkowski switched to the second: The administration's just announced "roadmap for congressional action" can't be funded without offsetting cuts in other areas of the budget. Following relatively brief rounds of questions, she ended the hearing, saying, "I apologize that we can't give more time to this."

And thus has it ever been. Since the U.S. took Puerto Rico in 1898 as booty in the Spanish-American war under the Republican President William McKinley, the GOP has treated the island mostly as an afterthought .

President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, campaigned in 1912 on a promise to give Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship and home rule, a promise that came to pass in legislation sponsored by two other Democrats. During the debate over that bill, the Republican speaker of the House, Joe Cannon, said that while Puerto Rico has "great tobacco and makes pretty good cigars," he fervently hoped the island would not achieve statehood in his lifetime.

Democrats billboarded the future of Puerto Rico in their party platforms over the last century, pushing for statehood in the 1920s and 1930s.  Republicans didn't, not even mentioning the island in platforms from 1960 to 1968. And the Democratic Party championed Puerto Rico's commonwealth during its glory years in the 1960s and 1970s.

More recently, while the Democrats have made a strong push for a referendum that would let Puerto Ricans decide whether they want to become a U.S. state or an independent one, Republicans have been more ambivalent. They pay lip service to any aspirations for statehood, while carefully saying that "Congress has the final authority to define the constitutionally valid options for Puerto Rico." And you can't blame them: Why would Republicans want to admit another state likely to have two Democratic senators and anywhere from one to three Democratic representatives?

Of course, the Republicans also have other reasons to shy away from helping Puerto Rico out of its current economic morass. Many are opposed to any kind of government intervention, especially action that smacks of a bailout. That makes it hard to do things like top up Puerto Rico's historically low Medicaid payments, or even to extend proven poverty-fighting tools like the earned income tax credit. You'd think, though, that Republicans could get behind helpful deregulatory measures like suspending the federal minimum wage or lifting rules that force Puerto Rico to use expensive U.S.-flagged vessels for trade with the mainland.

Puerto Rico's Slide

And what could be more American than extending to Puerto Rico the protections of U.S. bankruptcy law? Heck, we're a nation of bankrupts, the land of the second chance. Puerto Rico can't pay its debts, no amount of stern moral lectures will change that fact, and any speedy, orderly resolution of its debt mess will require an established legal framework. Some Republicans get that -- presidential candidate Jeb Bush, for instance. But then again, he's the former governor of Florida, home to a lot of the Puerto Rican voters who have fled their island's sinking economy. 

Republicans in Congress who oppose the extension of U.S. bankruptcy law -- probably the single most helpful thing Congress could do to help Puerto Rico's 3.5 million U.S. citizens -- answer to other masters: the hedge funds that bought Puerto Rico's bonds and want payment on the barrelhead, regardless of the risks they took on. (Four Republican ex-congressional staffers are among the most active lobbyists on their behalf.) Forcing ordinary Puerto Ricans to make those investors whole seems hardly fair, especially when the price of doing so will be more shuttered schools, hospitals, and power plants.

But so it goes. More than a century after the "splendid little war" by a Republican administration that brought them into the American fold, the island's inhabitants are still waiting for a little love and respect from the Grand Old Party.

  1. One exception: the Foraker Act giving Puerto Rico its first U.S. civil administration was named after its sponsor, Republican Senator Joseph Foraker.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net