One of my most moving memories in the U.S. Senate will always be the ceremony awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Borinqueneers. I led the effort to recognize and honor this military unit of Puerto Rican soldiers that played a profoundly significant role in both World War II and Korea. I was reminded that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, even if Puerto Rico is not a state. In fact, they are proud and patriotic Americans who have serviced and sacrificed to keep us free.
Despite the segregation and discrimination they confronted as members of the military, their dedication is profound and passionate. I have seen it in their faces and voices. Puerto Ricans are not only Americans – they are deeply proud to be Americans.
Members of Congress who recognize Puerto Ricans as Americans in rhetoric will now be put to the test in action. Puerto Rico is experiencing a historic fiscal crisis. Unsurmountable debt payments due to creditors are forcing Puerto Rico to choose between defaulting on its debt or denying essential public services to its citizens. On the mainland, municipalities and public and private corporations can stave off that terrible choice by restructuring their debt, through bankruptcy or otherwise. But Puerto Rico lacks the legal authority to do so – and Congress has so far refused to provide it.
The fiscal crisis has caused real, destructive impacts on Puerto Ricans. Budget crunch has led to cuts to health, education, and social services – forcing layoffs of hospital workers, closing over 150 schools, and threatening shutdowns to first responder programs. And in the face of the escalating outbreak of the Zika virus, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates will affect a quarter of the island’s population by the end of this year, there are insufficient funds to combat the spread of the disease or treat those affected.
As a result of such problems, thousands of Puerto Ricans have left for the mainland United States. While Connecticut and other states are very proud of their Puerto Rican communities, no American should be forced to leave home because essential services or jobs are no longer available.
For months, I have been working to provide a legislative solution: debt restructuring authority. Although a shameful campaign of misinformation has attempted to portray this step as a “bailout,” it is nothing of the kind. None of the varied restructuring proposals involve giving the territory any federal dollars. We must simply provide the island the legal ability to do what any other debtor can do: reorganize debt, prioritize payments, and chart a path forward.
Any viable solution for Puerto Rico must have three components. First, it should include a workable and meaningful debt restructuring regime. It should avoid giving a small number of creditors an effective veto over any debt restructuring plan developed under the new authority, forcing Puerto Rico to choose between default and inhumane policy changes that undermine its short-term well-being and long-term viability.
Second, any solution must respect the Puerto Rican government’s accountability to its people. The people of Puerto Rico and their elected representatives know that they must reform the island’s fiscal and financial practices. They have already implemented reforms, and many more can be achieved with outside assistance, such as a partnership with a federal advisory board. But indiscriminate cuts and austerity imposed top down without active, effective involvement of constituents are a recipe for disaster.
And third, the path forward must include measures to achieve sustainable, strong growth. Inequitable federal policy toward Puerto Rico – particularly with respect to tax treatment of working families and health care programs – has long hampered the island’s ability to create jobs and economic growth. Correcting this unfair situation would be a major step towards putting Puerto Rico’s economy on a sustainable trajectory.
The heroic Borinqueneers, and thousands of Puerto Rican warriors since, have fought and died for this country – their country. Congress cannot leave our fellow citizens behind. We must offer Puerto Rico the solution it desperately needs without further destructive delay.