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The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Political Representation

There have been many definitions of political representation. One of the more modern definitions was created by Hanna Pitkin in 1967. Pitkin defined to represent as, “to make present again.” By this she meant that political representation is to make citizens’ opinions, voices, and perspectives heard in the public policy process (Dovi). Political representation happens when a representative acts on behalf of those they represent. Pitkin also states that representation involves “authorization, authority, and looking out for another’s interests.” These actors should be selected by those that they are supposed to represent. It is essential for political representation that those elected are done so by fair and free elections, as they create laws that govern others (Rehfeld). 

In theory, this should mean that for the United States there are a number of actors that are elected to represent different parts of the population. These actors are then responsible for considering the opinions of their constituents and factoring those opinions into policy matters, whether this means in the drafting of policies or when voting on policies. They are also responsible for representing the opinions of their constituents when it is necessary to nominate or confirm someone for another position that will make decisions on behalf of the overall U.S. population, for example, a U.S. Supreme Court Judge. These representatives are responsible for decision making indirectly, and it is important that they make their decisions based on the opinions of their constituents in order for this to be considered political representation (Brennan, Geoffrey, and Hamlin). 

Currently, the public view on whether the United States should be involved in foreign affairs is evenly split, but the expression of positive views of U.S. global involvement has increased since 2014 (Pew Research Center). Most of the information that is available on opinions from the public regarding various topics is split between several demographics including political parties. The two-party system featured in U.S. politics has proven to be quite the barrier for many reasons, including the struggle to have representatives that truly represent the majority of their constituents. For those that choose to vote outside of the two major parties (Democrat or Republican) the lack of representation is considerable. Voting for an Independent or Green Party candidate is colloquially considered to be ‘throwing one’s vote away’ as it is typical that these candidates will lose any major election and will be unable to actually represent those that voted for them (O’Neill). 

U.S. Institutions of Foreign Policy

One way that the United States currently represents citizens’ beliefs on foreign policy is through their elected congressional representatives. The Senate was assigned a specific role in the foreign policy process by the Constitution. This role is “to advise the President in negotiating agreements, to consent to them once they have been signed, and to approve presidential appointments, including the Secretary of State, other high officials of the State Department, ambassadors and career foreign service officers (Foreign Policy Association).” Constituents are able to contact their representatives to inform them of their opinions on any issue and encourage them to take action. This can be done for a variety of reasons and foreign affairs policy is one of them. 

The U.S. also represents citizens’ beliefs on foreign policy through the U.S. State Department. The head of the State Department is selected by the President of the United States and is approved by Congress, which is once again where political representation comes into play. The Secretary of State acts as the President’s advisor on foreign affairs and serves as a representative of the United States to other countries (U.S. Department of State). 

The History of Relations Between the U.S. and Puerto Rico 

The Puerto Rico that many know today is a modern product of hundreds of years of colonization. Following the 1898 Spanish-American War Puerto Rico became a United States territory. For two years, Puerto Rico was controlled directly by the U.S. military until 1990 when the Foraker Act was passed. The Foraker Act was the first law passed that attempted to define the relationship between the island and the United States, and classified it as a territory (US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives). The Foraker Act also established a civilian government in Puerto Rico which consisted of a governor and an executive council appointed by the U.S. President, a House of Representatives with 35 elected members, a judicial system with a Supreme Court, and a non-voting Resident Commissioner in Congress (“Foraker Act”). The Act also ensured that all laws of the United States were to be in effect on the island. Ultimately, many Puerto Ricans were left disappointed by the Act as it did not do much to clarify the political status of the territory and anticipated but did not institute free trade with the United States (US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives). Before the Act was passed there was significant opposition by some House members. One argument felt that the bill did not go far enough and that one person could not represent more than one million people, which was far more significant than any other House member. The bill also provided significantly less representation for the territory in the U.S. government than it had in the Spanish Cortes. Other members, including Senator John C. Spooner, felt as though the legislation did too much and falsely promised eventual statehood to Puerto Rico. 

The Foraker Act brought up the other issue of U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans. There were several cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court called the Insular Cases. Not only did these cases raise the issue of whether the territories would be granted full citizenship, but they also decided whether Puerto Rico should be considered foreign or domestic for tax purposes (US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives). The cases saw Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and other Pacific Territories acquired after 1898 to be unincorporated territories. This meant that Puerto Ricans were considered citizens of Puerto Rico but also U.S. Nationals that received constitutional protections but not constitutional rights. This decision strengthened Congress’ absolute rule over Puerto Rico. 

In 1909, due to being fed up with the Foraker Act, the Puerto Rican Union Party held a revolt against the governor and executive council at the time. The Party accused them of deliberately ignoring calls for political reform on the island. The Puerto Rican House of Delegates submitted petitions to the U.S. Congress and President that protested the Foraker Act. They also threatened to adjourn without passing vital budget and appropriations bills (US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives). Congress then amended the Foraker Act in the case that they would need to pass necessary bills. When Wilson became president it seemed that the Foraker Act would once again be amended. Wilson’s 1912 campaign promised to ensure U.S. citizenship and home rule to Puerto Ricans. Between the period of 1912 to 1914, William A. Jones, the Insular Affairs Chairman proposed six bills, none of which gained traction that called for a new constitutional government and U.S. Citizenship for Puerto Rico. However, by 1914 the Island was once again important in the eyes of Congress as the Panama Canal was completed and World War I began. Puerto Rico became essential for the U.S. to protect German U-Boats from entering the Panama Canal. Puerto Rico also became very important as military generals attempted to put together troops. In 1917, President Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act which granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans. The Jones Act also separated the Legislative, Judicial, and Executive branches of the Puerto Rican government, provided individual rights to the individual, and created a locally elected bicameral legislature (“Foraker Act”).

Following World War II, the U.S. felt a global pressure to increase Puerto Rico’s autonomy and in 1946 President Truman installed the first native-born governor of Puerto Rico. In 1952, Congress approved the Puerto Rico Constitution officially rendering it the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (Council on Foreign Relations). Between 1950 and 1971, Puerto Rico’s economy boomed due to Operation Bootstrap. Operation Bootstrap was an economic development plan that transformed the island into a manufacturing hub that relied heavily on federal tax exemptions, low labor costs, and other incentives that drew American companies to the territory. In 1976, the Section 936 tax incentive came into effect and spurred manufacturing. When the U.S. government began phasing out the Internal Revenue Code Section 936 in 1996, the debt problem that Puerto Rico had accumulated accelerated. The provision had allowed American businesses to operate tax-free in the territory. The repeal triggered a deterioration of the manufacturing sector that had been growing there and sent the Puerto Rican government into debt to cover its expenses (Council on Foreign Relations). Since then Puerto Rico has accumulated around $35 billion in public debt. (The Associated Press). 

Should Puerto Rico Become a State?

The debate over whether Puerto Rico should remain a territory or become something more to the U.S. has been going on since its acquisition in 1898. There are many differing opinions from Puerto Ricans that live on the island, Puerto Ricans that have moved to the U.S. mainland, and non-Puerto Ricans in the United States. In order for Puerto Rico to become a state, Congress would need a majority support for legislation similarly to any other federal legislative debates. 

According to Ed Morales, a professor at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race in Columbia University, “It’s always been divisive, because since the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico in 1898, there have been people who have been in favor of continuing a relationship with the U.S., similar to the one that there is now. But there are people who want independence because they feel really strong about their national identity, or the people who want statehood because they want to be Americans (ABC News).” There is agreement among Puerto Ricans that something needs to change, but the course of action between statehood, independence, or enhanced commonwealth is debated. Previously, there have been six referendums conducted but there has been no kind of official change and in the most recent referendum that was conducted on November 3, 2020, 52% of residents voted for statehood, while 47% of residents voted against it, with Puerto Rico’s election commission stating about 52% of voters participated (ABC News). 

There are several advocacy groups fighting for a change in the way Puerto Rico is treated by the United States. Some of the groups include Power 4 Puerto Rico and Latino Justice. These groups also advocate for more aid to be given to Puerto Rico to help with the ongoing crisis that was caused by Hurricane Maria. Many of these advocacy groups also do not fight for one specific course or action, but instead fight for Puerto Rico to self-determine. By self-determine, these groups mean that Puerto Rico should decide whether they want to be a state, a separate country, or something in between. 

Non-Puerto Ricans that live in the U.S. also have a wide variety of opinions on the course of actions. For many, their opinion can change based on how much they know about the situation in Puerto Rico. The Washington Post conducted a study where they provided some citizens with the knowledge on Puerto Rico’s political history and compared their opinions with the group that only received information on the wildlife in Puerto Rico. For those that had knowledge on the situation in Puerto Rico and knew that currently Puerto Rico does not have any voting representatives in the U.S. government, the likelihood of supporting statehood was higher and the opposition to statehood was lower, compared to the other group (Santiago, Kustov). 

In most cases, the public is incredibly uninformed regarding the U.S. policies towards Puerto Rico. Whether this is due to woeful ignorance or the biased media, the public maintaining a lack of knowledge on the importance of Puerto Rico’s state and their contributions to the U.S. as a whole can be very dangerous. A poll conducted in 2017, when Puerto Rico was commonly in the media due to Hurricane Maria, showed that only 54 percent of Americans know that people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens (Dropp, Kyle, and Nyhan). Unfortunately, this lack of knowledge can prove very detrimental for Puerto Rico and its citizens as Americans are more likely to support cuts to foreign aid when they are asked to evaluate spending costs. The same poll also reported that “More than 8 in 10 Americans who know Puerto Ricans are citizens support aid, compared with only 4 in 10 of those who do not (Dropp, Kyle, and Nyhan).” 

What Should Biden Do?

I believe that if President Biden wanted to make smart foreign policy decisions that are also backed by U.S. citizens, he should consider making calls for appeals to the Jones Act. While the Jones Act did give Puerto Ricans the U.S. citizenship that they desired, it also required that any vessel that transports goods between U.S. ports has to be American built, manned, and owned. Not only does this cost Puerto Rico millions of dollars each year, thus plunging them into greater debt, this is also harmful for many mainland Americans, such as in the case of the pipeline that supplies 45% of fuel to the East Coast being down (Wall Street Journal). 

Since President Biden already believes “the people of Puerto Rico have an inalienable right to choose their political destiny and the United States’ government must respect and act on that choice (ABC News),” the next step that I would recommend for him to take is to support an official referendum after educating the Puerto Rican public on the variety of options available. In order to make this an effective tool, I think that it would be necessary to supply funding to many of the advocacy groups that support the self-determination for Puerto Rico in order to spread awareness about how each option would impact the population. One way that President Biden could go about this is by supporting the act introduced by Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. and Sen. Bob Menéndez, D-N.J., called the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act which would call for a status convention among local legislatures elected by the Puerto Rican people. Delegates would be responsible for finding a permanent solution for the island’s territorial status (ABC News). 

Sources Referenced:

ABC News, ABC News Network, abcnews.go.com/US/puerto-ricos-divide-territorial-status/story?id=76679606.

Abdiel Santiago, Alexander Kustov. “Analysis | Puerto Ricans Voted to Become the 51st U.S. State – Again.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 Nov. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/11/13/puerto-ricans-voted-become-51st-us-state-again/.

Board, The Editorial. “Opinion | The Jones Act Strikes Again.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 12 May 2021, www.wsj.com/articles/the-jones-act-strikes-again-11620859719?page=1.

Brennan, Geoffrey, and Alan Hamlin. “On Political Representation.” British Journal of Political Science, vol. 29, no. 1, 1999, pp. 109–127. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/194298.

Dovi, Suzanne. “Political Representation.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 29 Aug. 2018, plato.stanford.edu/entries/political-representation/#KeyComPolRep.

Dropp, Kyle, and Brendan Nyhan. “Nearly Half of Americans Don’t Know Puerto Ricans Are Fellow Citizens.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Sept. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/upshot/nearly-half-of-americans-dont-know-people-in-puerto-ricoans-are-fellow-citizens.html.

“Foraker Act (Organic Act of 1900).” Foraker Act (Organic Act of 1900) – The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War (Hispanic Division, Library of Congress), www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/foraker.html.

“How U.S. Foreign Policy Is Made.” Foreign Policy Association, fpa.org/features/index.cfm?act=feature&announcement_id=45&show_sidebar=0.

“Jones Act.” Jones Act – The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War (Hispanic Division, Library of Congress), www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/jonesact.html#:~:text=On March% 202, 1917, President,a locally elected bicameral legislature.

O’Neill, Aaron. “U.S. Presidential Elections: Third-Party Performance 1892-2020.” Statista, 17 Feb. 2021, www.statista.com/statistics/1134513/third-party-performance-us-elections/.

Press, The Associated. “Puerto Rico Files Debt-Restructuring Plan amid Criticism.”

NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 9 Mar. 2021, www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/puerto-rico-files-debt-restructuring-plan-criticism-rcna375.

Rehfeld, Andrew. “Towards a General Theory of Political Representation.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 68, no. 1, 2006, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1111/j.1468-2508.2006.00365.x. 

“Puerto Rico.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/HAIC/Historical-Essays/Foreign-Domestic/Puerto-Rico/.

“Puerto Rico: A U.S. Territory in Crisis.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr.org/backgrounder/puerto-rico-us-territory-crisis.

“U.S. Public Views on Foreign Policy.” Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy, Pew Research Center, 28 Aug. 2020, www.pewresearch.org/politics/2017/10/05/3-foreign-policy/.

“United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 16 May 2021, www.state.gov/.

Caitlin is a Senior at the University of Delaware. Her major is International Relations and she has minors in History, International Business, and Social Justice. When she's not writing for Her Campus you can find Caitlin running around campus (most likely with an iced coffee in hand) or with her friends.
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