Menendez: PROMESA Must Fulfill its Promise

Menendez: PROMESA Must Fulfill its Promise


WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) delivered a speech today on the Senate floor in which he cautioned his colleagues against simply rubberstamping a bad House bill to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, and instead work to improve PROMESA to ensure it fulfills its promise.     

Full text of the Senator’s remarks:

“M. President, I rise today to be a voice for the 3.5 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico.

“I rise so their concerns for themselves, their families, and their livelihoods will be heard — to ask that we improve the House-passed legislation known as PROMESA.

“It means 'promise' in English, but the only thing the House bill promises the people of Puerto Rico is years of subjugation at the hands of an anti-democratic control board.

“All of us in this Senate are faced with an immediate and serious choice, one which will have profound consequences on the people of Puerto Rico for a generation. 

“I’ve said from the beginning that any solution needs a clear path to restructuring.  It needs an oversight board that represents the people of Puerto Rico — their needs, their concerns — and acknowledges and respects their democratic rights as Americans. 

“But — sadly, M. President — the legislation passed by the House last week falls far short, far short of what we need on several fronts.  Instead of offering a clear path to restructuring, it creates more obstacles.

“It creates a supermajority, 5-2 vote by an unelected Control Board that could derail the island’s attempts to achieve sustainable debt payments.  Without any authority to restructure its debt, all this legislation will do is take away the democratic rights of 3.5 million Americans and leave the future to wishful thinking and a prayer that the crisis will somehow be resolved.

“But even if the Board allows restructuring, it will come at a steep price, and that price is the right of self-governance.

“In return for being able to rework its debts, the people of Puerto Rico will be forced to relinquish their fundamental right to govern themselves and make their own decisions.  The very same rights that we fought a revolution to secure 240 years ago.

“This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who read the House Natural Resources Committee report, which was unequivocal when describing the vast powers this Control Board will exercise.  In an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, it states: ‘The board would have broad sovereign powers to effectively overrule decisions by Puerto Rico’s legislature, governor and other public authorities.’

“Let me repeat, ‘broad, sovereign powers, to effectively overrule decisions’ made by the elected government.

“CBO went on to say: the Board can ‘ … effectively nullify any new laws or policies adopted by Puerto Rico that did not conform to requirements specified in the bill.’

“So not only can the Control Board set budgets and fiscal policy, it also has the power to veto laws.  Essentially, this means that the Board combines the legislative powers of Congress with the veto powers of the Executive, to form an omnipotent entity, the powers of which are virtually unprecedented.  

“As the bill’s own author noted in the Committee Report: ‘ … the Oversight Board may impose mandatory cuts on Puerto Rico’s government and instrumentalities – a power far beyond that exercised by the Control Board established for the District of Columbia ... ’

“The fact that the Puerto Rican people will have absolutely no say over who is appointed or what action they decide to take is blatant neocolonialism.  Instead, their fate will be determined by seven unelected, unaccountable, members of a so-called ‘Oversight Board’ that will act as a virtual oligarchy and impose their unchecked will on the island. 

“If the board uses the super powers in this bill to close more schools, shutter more hospitals, cut senior citizens’ pensions to the bone, if it decides to hold a fire sale and put Puerto Rican natural wonders on the auction block to the highest bidder, if it puts balanced budgets ahead of the health, safety and wellbeing of children and families similar to how the control board travesty that unfolded in Flint, there will be nothing the people of Puerto Rico or their elected representatives can do to stop it. 

“And, of course, the bill doesn’t stop there.  It also provides an exception to the federal minimum wage for younger workers, and it exempts the island from recently finalized overtime protections.  At a time that we’re working to increase worker’s wage, PROMESA goes the opposite direction and actually cuts workers’ wages.

“It amazes me that the ‘solution’ to get Puerto Rico’s economy growing again is to ensure that workers make even less money.

“No, lowering people’s wages is not a pro-growth strategy.  It’s a pro-migration strategy.  All it would do is intensify outmigration to the mainland where Puerto Ricans are eligible for a higher minimum wage and common sense overtime protections.

“I’ll remind everyone that the people of Puerto Rico have fought on behalf of America from World War I to the War on Terror and if you ever looked at the names on the Vietnam Memorial, you’d find a disproportionately high number of Puerto Rican names etched in that solemn, black stone.

“These men and women who gave their lives — and still serve — so that we may remain the Land of the Free — will go back to a home where their freedom and the right to self-governance will be stripped.  These heroes deserve the same rights and respect as citizens in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Utah or any other state in the nation.

“But what this bill tells the people of Puerto Rico is that, though they may be good enough to wear the uniform of their country — good enough to fight and die to defend this country — they’re not good enough to make their own decisions, govern themselves, and have a voice in their own future.

“Now, I’m not advocating to completely remove all oversight powers.  To the contrary, I support helping Puerto Rico make informed, prudent decisions that put it on a path to economic growth and solvency.  But despite its name, the ‘Oversight’ Board envisioned by this bill doesn’t simply oversee — it directs, it commands.  It doesn’t assist, it controls.

“But, M. President, the Senate has an opportunity to change the situation; we have a chance to improve this bill situation and strike the right balance.

“I plan to offer a number of targeted, commonsense amendments to restore a proper balance and ensure the people of Puerto Rico have a say in their future, and to temper the powers of the Control Board and give the Puerto of Puerto Rico more of a say of who’s on the Board.

“M. President, I know — as all of us know — success is never guaranteed, but at the very least, the people of Puerto Rico deserve a thorough and thoughtful debate on the Senate floor.  I do not take lightly, nor should my colleagues, a decision to infringe upon the democratic rights of the people of Puerto Rico.

“The 3.5 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico, and their five million family members living in our states and in our districts, deserve more than the Senate holding its nose to approve an inferior solution.  And I’m pleased to say that this sentiment is bipartisan, as I just sent a letter with Senator Wicker to Senate leadership asking for a full and thorough debate.

“I take Majority Leader McConnell at his word when he said we ‘need to open up the legislative process in a way that allows more amendments from both sides’ and I’m hopeful he will honor his commitment. 

“Like some of my colleagues, I was once a member of the House of Representatives and have enormous respect for that chamber.  But I didn’t get elected to the Senate to abdicate my responsibility and simply rubberstamp whatever bills come out of the House.

“I would hope that we immediately call this bill up for debate and do what we were elected to do, fix problems and make the lives of the American people better.

“With that, M. President, I yield the floor.”