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Robert M.
Democrat NJ

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  • Puerto Rico

    by Senator Robert Menendez

    Posted on 2015-12-17

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    MENENDEZ. Mr. President, first, I thank the distinguished senior Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over the territories, including Puerto Rico, for her advocacy, for her strength of passion in this effort, and for her work. I also thank my colleague from Florida who has always joined me on issues on Puerto Rico and who has always been a strong voice for the island.

    I would hope to prick the conscience of the Senate about the 3.5 million U.S. citizens who just happen to live on the island of Puerto Rico and to do something before this crisis transforms into a full- blown human catastrophe. These 3.5 million Americans who call Puerto Rico home have a long history with the United States. Over 200,000 of them have served in every conflict since World War I and worn the uniform of the United States.

    Over 20,000 of them currently wear the uniform of the United States and put their lives at risk for the safety and security of all of us here at home. They are stationed across the globe.

    If you went with me--and I invite any colleague who wants to go to the Vietnam Memorial--you would see a disproportionate number of Puerto Ricans who served in the Vietnam war and gave their lives on behalf of the country. Puerto Rico is an integral part of America and its people are as American as you and I. They have full citizenship rights. The status of where they live does not alter their rights under the Constitution, and the fiscal timebomb that is waiting to explode in Puerto Rico is an American problem.

    In my time in the House of Representatives, I could never believe it when I would have colleagues who asked me if they needed a passport to visit Puerto Rico. I thought they were joking, but they were serious. This is an American problem.

    We not only have an opportunity, but more importantly I think we have a responsibility to take immediate action to stabilize the island and give our fellow citizens the opportunity to fix the current crisis, but instead of deescalating the crisis, we are demagoguing those who are facing it. Instead of providing the tools Puerto Rico needs to get on the path to solvency, we are tying our hands behind our backs.

    So let me put this plainly and simply: Puerto Rico is getting a raw deal. While we dither here, the island is economically in flames. We are about to spend over $600 billion in tax breaks but denied the earned-income tax credit and child tax credit equity for American citizens living in Puerto Rico. We are about to pass a $1.1 trillion budget but ignored pleas on the island to receive the same chapter 9 treatment in bankruptcy to reorganize and restructure their debt that any State has and that they had at one time and was surreptitiously taken out. That right that they had was taken out.

    As has been said by the distinguished ranking member, giving Puerto Rico back the right they had will not cost the American taxpayer one single dime. Those bottom feeders who ultimately went and tried to buy enough bonds dirt cheap and now want to get paid at maximum amount, that should not be where the focus of the Senate is when it comes to these 3.5 million Americans. I am wondering if it was some other group of people, whether we would feel the same way. I really have to wonder. We are about to increase Big Oil's profits by about $170 billion over the next decade, but we can't do anything for the 3.5 million people who call Puerto Rico home, who are U.S. citizens, and who wear the uniform of the United States.

    I am pleased to see that the legislation will include a little piece of my high-tech legislation to help the hospitals in Puerto Rico, but that is not going to do anything as it relates to the crisis we are facing. This crisis didn't develop overnight--it was over several administrations--nor will it be fixed in a day. Governor Padilla and the Government of Puerto Rico have done everything they can to right the ship and restore a path to solvency. They have closed schools and hospitals. They have laid off police and firefighters. They have raised taxes on businesses and individuals. They have gone beyond what any sovereign nation would consider doing to right the economic status, but they are out of options.

    All the cuts and tax hikes will not make a dent in this crisis without the breathing room that restructuring authority provides. That is all we are asking for, not a single cost to the American paper. This problem is not [[Page S8772]] going away. Mark my words, if we don't act now, this crisis will explode into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe that isn't going to take a year or months. It is going to be right around the corner.

    It is pretty amazing that instead of dealing with this issue in a way in which we can solve it, we are basically--it is the equivalent of waiting for a malignant tumor to metastasize before we actually act on it. That is what we are doing. The sooner you act, the higher your chances of success are, and that is no different in the case of Puerto Rico. They are not asking us to pull them out of this hole. They are simply saying give us the tools so we can do it on our own.

    It is the same can-do spirit of the Borinqueneers, who served our country during the Korean war--an all-Puerto Rican division, the most highly decorated in U.S. military history who said: Just give us the tools and we will fight for our Nation--or NASA engineer and Exceptional Achievement Medal winner Dr. Carlos Ortiz Longo or the baseball great and philanthropist, Roberto Clemente. I could go on and on about the contributions of Americans of Puerto Rican descent to this country. Just give them the tools.

    Instead, this Congress is going to go home for the holidays and say to Puerto Rico: You get coal in your stocking, instead of giving them the tools to help them be able to face a better day. At the end of the day, believe me, if we do not act, more will come to Senator Nelson's State of Florida, more of them will come to New Jersey, more of them will come to New York, more of them will come to Ohio, and more of them will come to Pennsylvania--which are some of the largest concentrations in the Nation--because they are U.S. citizens. When they come, they will have the rights to everything that every other citizen has.

    That is the reality, and I cannot imagine why our friends on the Republican side cannot get to the point of understanding that these 3.5 million residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. They fought for their country, died for their country, shed blood for the country, have been maimed for the country, and yet we just can't give them the tools to get themselves into fiscal order again.

    It is pretty amazing. It is pretty amazing that we will leave for the holidays and actually have for some--not for those of us on the floor-- but for some no regret that we are leaving those 3.5 million U.S. citizens without any options.

    I don't believe in leaving any American behind. That is why I have voted on this floor for flood damage in the Mississippi. That is why I voted for wildfires in the West, to help them be dealt with. That is why I voted for crop damage. I have been there because I believe there is a reason we call this the United States of America. Puerto Ricans, in terms of their citizenship, they are U.S. citizens. They deserve the same rights as anyone else.

    With that, I see my distinguished friend and colleague from Connecticut, who I know feels very passionately--the way I do--about this issue, and I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Connecticut.

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