Medina is a member of Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora, a group of U.S.-based Puerto Ricans that advocates for Puerto Rico's self-determination and decolonization.
In recent months, Americans have been rightfully concerned about threats to the nation's democracy, from the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol to new restrictive voting laws in states across the country. At the same time, America's oldest democratic crisis rages on: Puerto Rico remains, for all intents and purposes, a U.S. colony — its more than 3 million residents granted neither full sovereignty nor full political rights in the United States. That immoral status quo rarely garners much attention, but it urgently demands action from all Americans who defend democratic values.
Puerto Rico has been a U.S. possession for 123 years. The U.S. Congress, in which Puerto Ricans lack full voting representation, exercises plenary power over the island. Puerto Ricans cannot vote for the president who may send them to war or, indeed, order or impede life-saving disaster aid. Too few Americans have adequately grappled with how Puerto Rico's political status perpetuates the interconnected socioeconomic crises that afflict the island, and remains an enduring hindrance to the well-being and prosperity of its people.
For decades that status quo persisted, in part, because a majority of Puerto Ricans tacitly supported it. That was never adequate justification: "colonialism by consent" is a grotesque concept, and it does not exempt the United States from its moral responsibility to free the island from political limbo. But the U.S. has consistently shirked that responsibility. Puerto Rico has held six status plebiscites in the last 55 years; the last four have marked, in one way or another, a rejection of the current status, but Congress has not taken any meaningful action to decolonize Puerto Rico. And why should they? Puerto Ricans can neither reward nor punish U.S. politicians for their action or inaction on this issue; and Americans, convinced that it's "not their place," implicitly support the status quo through their indifference.
It's happening again now. Last year, 53 percent of Puerto Rican voters chose statehood in the latest plebiscite. But, in Congress, a proposal to annex Puerto Rico is dead in the water. To be clear, there are good reasons to not support statehood, which won only a slim majority in a "yes or no" vote that included no other options. For one thing, Puerto Ricans' vote for statehood reflects preferences and prejudices forged in a crucible of colonial domination, economic dependence and political persecution. To cite just one example, the same FBI surveillance program that persecuted Martin Luther King Jr., spent six decades collecting more than 1.5 million pages of secret files on Puerto Rican independence advocates.
Most importantly: Puerto Rico is a nation and Puerto Ricans a distinct people. For our homeland to be absorbed into the country that once invaded it in an imperialist frenzy is far from a just and decolonial outcome.
Still, Congress' refusal to act on Puerto Ricans' stated preference should belie once and for all the notion that the United States will simply "heed the will of the people" on the status question. Nor should anyone expect a supermajority consensus to emerge anytime soon. Puerto Ricans have spent decades divided on this issue because it turns on fundamental questions about nationhood, identity and culture that are not easily reconciled.
But neither the intractable nature of the problem nor immobilism in D.C. can be an excuse for inaction that leaves Puerto Ricans in a state of subordination. When Congress neglects the concerns of the American people, it's a bug in a democracy in which those citizens are full participants. But inaction on Puerto Rico's status is a feature of a system in which the U.S. continues to deny democracy altogether to Puerto Ricans.
It's going to take Puerto Ricans and Americans, working together, to dismantle that system. The United States can no longer be a passive participant on this issue, content to ignore Puerto Ricans on all sides of this debate. American leaders, and the American people, must become active partners in a serious, inclusive decolonization process that rejects the status quo and defines alternatives, so that Puerto Ricans can make an informed decision that Congress will respect.
Fortunately, such a proposal is already on the table: the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act. Introduced by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez in the House, and by Bob Menéndez in the Senate, it outlines a process by which Puerto Rico would hold a convention to deliberate on non-territorial status options, draft transition plans and hold educational campaigns before a vote. The convention would work with a congressional bilateral commission, which would ensure that plans and alternatives are realistic and politically viable. Most importantly, it would create a framework to untangle a complex colonial legacy, place independence and statehood on equal footing, and compel the United States to finally end this shameful chapter in our shared history.
The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act is co-sponsored by leading Democrats like Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar; and Reps. Maxine Waters, Adam Schiff, Joaquín Castro, Ayanna Pressley and Katie Porter. It has bipartisan backing from Republican Sen. Richard Burr. Despite that broad support, the bill is stuck in committee. There it will remain unless the American people do what Puerto Ricans cannot: speak up, advocate and pressure their elected officials.
Whether they favor statehood or — as I do — independence, millions of Americans rightfully support "self-determination" for Puerto Rico. It is past time for them to act on it.
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The sprawling Republican effort to make voting more difficult has been derailed for the first time by a Democratic governor.
Laura Kelly of Kansas has vetoed two bills, one curbing the number of ballots third parties may collect and deliver and the other giving the Legislature total control over election rules. Both were drafted in response to developments in other states last year — decisions by courts and governors to ease access to the ballot during the pandemic, and Donald Trump's baseless claims that widespread fraud had robbed him of a second presidential term.
The measures now return to the capital, where both have more than enough support for a veto override in the Senate but appear to be a handful of votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority in the House. Kansas' 2021 legislative session lasts three more weeks.
While Georgia has been the focus of this year's intense nationwide fight over election legislation, in part because it was one of the purple states key to President Biden's win, the battle is also being fought in plenty of states Trump carried — with new curbs already enacted in Iowa and Montana and steadily advancing in Texas and Florida.
But the GOP holds all the levers of lawmaking power in all of them. Kansas is one of eight states with Democratic governors and Republican statehouses. Biden took 42 percent there last fall, only the sixth time since World War II when the Democratic nominee got more than two of every five votes.
This got the state's GOP agitated and fueled conspiracy theories — many about cheating at the hands of so-called "ballot harvesters" — that Republican Secretary of State Scott Schwab has labored to tamp down. He says voting in 2020 was "free and fair."
One of the vetoed measures would take Kansas off the roster of 26 states that permit voters to entrust anyone they like to deliver their completed absentee ballot. Both political parties and various campaign organizations use such laws to collect envelopes from sympathetic voters — mainly the elderly, poor and disabled as well as people living in remote areas such as Indian reservations.
But Republicans, fueled by Trump, have turned against the practice with a vengeance in recent years, arguing without much evidence that it encourages fraud. (The biggest such case of cheating, by far, involved a 2018 GOP congressional campaign in North Carolina.) The Supreme Court is now deliberating whether Arizona's curbs on third-party collection amounts of racially discriminatory voter suppression.
The Kansas bill would limit to 10 the number of ballots anyone could deliver, and also stiffen signature-match requirements on mail-in forms.
"Although Kansans have cast millions of ballots over the last decade, there remains no evidence of significant voter fraud," the governor said in a statement on Friday. "This bill is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. It is designed to disenfranchise Kansans, making it difficult for them to participate in the democratic process, not to stop voter fraud."
The other bill she vetoed would prevent her from changing election laws or procedures by executive order, and would bar the secretary of state from negotiating any settlements of election-related lawsuits without approval from the Legislature. But Kelly decreed no such alterations to voting procedures in 2020 and none were mandated in the state by the courts — putting Kansas in a distinct minority of just 16 states where neither thing happened in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
In her veto message, Kelly warned such a law could imperil the business climate in the state, as more and more companies have spoken out this spring against legislation that would curb ballot access.
The bill would respond, however, to the most prominent recent case of election malfeasance in Kansas, by requiring a brick-and-mortar residential address for all registered voters. The congressional career of Republican Steve Watkins came to an abrupt end after one term in 2020, partly after it was revealed he'd listed his home as a UPS store so he could vote illegally for a friend running for the city council in Topeka.
Kelly is running for a second term but is seen as one of the most electorally vulnerable governors in 2022.
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Over the past year, states have issued hundreds of rule changes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, covering issues from public health and safety to business protocols to election procedures.
But one consequence of some of these emergency orders has been a shift in the balance of power at the state level. Ballotpedia reported Thursday that eight states have seen the governor's authority weakened by Covid-related legislation.
Governors generally have the authority to declare a state of emergency in cases of natural disasters, disease epidemics and other threats to public health. And in the early days of the pandemic, nearly all states issued lockdown or stay-at-home orders.
But in the months following, some states saw conflict between the executive and legislative branches on how to proceed with the orders. Lawmakers introduced hundreds of bills to limit gubernatorial emergency powers, and ultimately 10 were enacted in eight states.
Surprisingly, in most of those eight states, the same political party controlled the governorship and the legislature. Three were run by Republicans: Arkansas, Ohio and Utah. Two were Democratic: Colorado and New York. And the remaining three have Democratic governors and Republican-majority legislatures: Kansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
Here is a rundown of how these eight states have placed new limits on the governor's emergency powers authority:
Last month, the Legislature passed and Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed legislation that limits statewide emergency declarations to 60 days unless extended by the governor. The new law also allows lawmakers to block any state of emergency extensions made by the governor.
Last summer, the General Assembly passed and Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill that requires the governor to communicate with and provide information to state lawmakers following an emergency declaration.
Two new laws regarding emergency powers have been enacted in the last year in Kansas. The first, approved last summer, extended the coronavirus state of emergency, while banning Gov. Laura Kelly from declaring any new states of emergency in 2020 without first receiving approval from the state finance council. The law also limits how long the governor can close businesses and terminates emergency proclamations after 15 days unless extended by the Legislature.
The second measure also extended Kansas's state of emergency, while further limiting the governor's emergency powers. It allows anyone burdened by executive order, school board policy or county health directive to file a civil action in court, which must be heard within 72 hours. The law also empowers the Legislative Coordinating Council to override gubernatorial executive orders.
In February, the Republican-majority General Assembly enacted two new restrictive bills by voting to override Democatic Gov. Andy Beshear's vetoes. The first law limits a governor's emergency orders to 30 days unless extended by the legislature. It also requires the governor to receive approval from the attorney general before suspending a statute via executive order during an emergency.
The second law grants legislative committees more oversight of the governor's emergency regulations and requires public input for some orders.
Last month, the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved a new law that repeals a provision of a law passed last year that extended the governor's executive order powers during a pandemic. The new law also allows the Legislature to revoke any executive order through concurrent resolution. It also requires the governor to create a searchable website that tracks all executive actions made during a pandemic.
The Legislature voted last month to override Gov. Mike DeWine's veto of a bill that restricts the governor's authority over public health orders. The new measure allows the Legislature to cancel public health orders after 30 days and requires the governor to renew such orders every 60 days. It also establishes a legislative panel overseeing the governor's public health orders.
Last summer, the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted a law prohibiting the governor from directing agencies to ignore public records requests during states of emergency. At the time, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said he disagreed with the bill, but would "err on the side of transparency" and allow it to become law without his signature.
A constitutional amendment related to emergency declarations was also certified for the May 18 ballot. If approved by voters, the amendment would limit the governor's emergency declarations to 21 days unless the legislature extends them. It would also allow the General Assembly to pass a resolution, without needing the governor's signature, to extend or terminate an executive order during an emergency.
Last summer, the Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert approved a measure that requires the governor to notify the legislative pandemic response team within 24 hours of taking any executive actions in response to a public health crisis, unless there is imminent threat to life or property. The law also allows the Legislature to issue a joint resolution to block any pandemic executive actions.
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Marcum is a fellow at the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank. Deaton is on the communications staff of Protect Democracy, a nonprofit working "to prevent our democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government."
Thirteen months ago, we cheerfully reported on a little-covered House Rules Committee hearing that examined ways Congress could "reassert national security authorities it has long lost or delegated to the executive branch." We documented the "bipartisan goodwill" in the room and the seeming "genuine energy for reform."
Despite these good feelings, though, we warned that past optimism has too often been followed by inaction, and so it was up to Congress "to continue this important discussion."
The good news: A year later, we're still optimistic — in fact, even more so than before — thanks to two House committees and a growing bipartisan band of lawmakers interested in restoring Congress' institutional powers.
One day last month, both the Rules Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee held hearings reexamining Congress' war powers and the broad authorizations to use military power given to previous presidents but still in effect — in one case, almost two decades after being granted.
Before the Rules hearing, Democratic Chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and ranking Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma released a joint statement explaining why the issue enjoys bipartisan interest. Their committee also highlighted the growing bipartisan consensus that the legislative branch needs to apply greater scrutiny on the executive branch's growing powers and lack of consultation with Congress on its numerous uses of military force.
During the Foreign Affairs hearing, ranking Republican Michael McCaul of Texas, for instance, explained that "wars should not be on autopilot" and "Congress owes our troops a clear commitment to the missions we are asking them to undertake." Democratic Chairman Gregory Meeks of New York similarly observed that an outdated congressional authorization for force "opens the door for future presidents to use force without working through Congress."
After both hearings, the chairmen released a joint statement summarizing the growing consensus that "executive authority on matters of war and peace has gone unchecked for many years" and declaring that Congress has a joint responsibility "when we send our uniformed men and women into harm's way." The chairmen concluded that these hearings would guide Congress' next steps to make "reform a reality."
One immediate reform is to repeal outdated and unnecessary authorizations for the use of military force. The most criticized is the 2002 measure, written to allow President George W. Bush to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, authorizing the president to "defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq."
But much has changed in the subsequent 19 years, of course. To begin, the United States is no longer at war with Iraq. Indeed, in the view of the State Department, Iraq is now "a key partner" in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the broad language has been stretched by subsequent presidents of both parties, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Donald Trump, to support military actions unrelated to ending Saddam Hussein's rule. And finally, as Jack Goldsmith, a high-ranking George W. Bush administration official, explained last month, the law is now "unnecessary" because "every use of force in which the 2002 AUMF was invoked could have been justified independently" — either by the 2001 authorization of force enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks or by the president's commander-in-chief constitutional powers.
Two days after the hearing, Foreign Affairs approved legislation to repeal the 2002 war authorization written by Democrat Barbara Lee of California, who cast the singular "no" vote in Congress against the 2001 use-of-force measure. The legislation enjoys seven Republican cosponsors along with its 105 Democratic backers.
Lee's legislation isn't the only bipartisan bill on this topic moving through Congress. A measure recently introduced by Democrats Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Jared Golden of Maine, along with Republicans Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin and Peter Meijer of Michigan, would repeal not only the 2002 law but also antiquated authorizations from 1991 (which precipitated the Persian Gulf War) and 1957 (to repel communism in the Middle East). There's also a Senate measure by Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Todd Young of Indiana to repeal both the 2002 and 1991 authorizations.
However, it is important that the effort not stop there. "Congress must do more than withdraw old permission slips and reduce America's heavy military presence abroad," Goldsmith wrote in a New York Times op-ed last month. "It should end its long acquiescence in presidential arrogation of war power by affirmatively prohibiting unilateral uses of force except in tightly defined circumstances of actual self-defense."
In other words, AUMF reform must be partnered with fundamental war powers reform to be effective.
In 2019, a coalition of good government groups articulated key principles for additional reform.
These include the reauthorization or sunset of all AUMFs after two years, a limitation on their scope, strengthened reporting requirements, tightened definitions of relevant terms such as "hostilities" and the cut-off of funds for any violations.
During a long Senate career that included almost four years as Foreign Relations Committee chairman, President Biden was a champion of stronger war powers for the legislative branch and weaker ones for the executive. But, historically, Congress hasn't been willing to take up this cause, while presidents of all ideologies have fought to protect their own expanding power.
Between the recent and widespread action in Congress and Biden's record as a senator, there finally may be the sort of cooperative spirit in Washington necessary to make war powers reform reality. As McGovern told his House Rules hearing, sometimes it is possible to catch "lightning in a bottle" — times such as this one.
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