Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for Congress

Source: R. Sam Garrett, Congressional Research Service, CRS Report, R44721, June 12, 2017

Puerto Rico lies approximately 1,000 miles southeast of Miami and 1,500 miles from Washington, DC. Despite being far outside the continental United States, the island has played a significant role in American politics and policy since the United States acquired Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898.

Puerto Rico’s political status—referring to the relationship between the federal government and a territorial one—is an undercurrent in virtually every policy matter on the island. In a June 11, 2017, plebiscite (popular vote), 97.2% of voters chose statehood when presented with three options on the ballot. Turnout for the plebiscite was 23.0% of eligible voters. Some parties and other groups opposing the plebiscite had urged their bases to boycott the vote. (These data are based on 99.5% of precincts reporting results.) After initially including only statehood and free association/independence options, an amended territorial law ultimately permitted three options on the plebiscite ballot: statehood, free association/independence, or current territorial status. ….

…. Congress has not enacted any recent legislation devoted specifically to status. Two bills have been introduced during the 115th Congress. H.R. 260 proposes to admit Puerto Rico as a state if residents choose statehood in a plebiscite. H.R. 900 proposes a popular vote between independence and free association (which entails an ongoing relationship between independent countries). In the 114th Congress, H.R. 727, which did not advance beyond introduction, would have authorized a plebiscite on statehood. ….

…. This report provides policy and historical background about Puerto Rico’s political status—referring to the relationship between the federal government and a territorial one. Congress has not altered the island’s status since 1952, when it approved a territorial constitution. Status is the lifeblood of Puerto Rican politics, spanning policy and partisan lines in ways that are unfamiliar on the mainland. ….