The Legislature’s prominence reached its highest moment in the 1950s when it created a Constituent Assembly with the task of writing a constitution for the island. The work done by this group of citizens drew on the legislative experience of recent years and was based on the best parliamentary traditions. It produced a document of consensus, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which was approved with varying degrees of enthusiasm by all of the political factions. From a procedural and democratic point of view (and despite the adversarial political situation of the time), the Constituent Assembly’s work represented a significant achievement by Puerto Rican politicians, recognized by all as a successful experience both in functional terms, as well as on a symbolic level.

The Commonwealth Constitution validated the democratic principles of representation and separation of powers and gave the legislative branch extensive powers over the internal legislative process and the state’s finances. It also established the foundation for autonomous administration of each of the branches of government, without interference by the executive, thus ensuring functional stability and formal continuity of both bodies, in keeping with modern liberal republican principles. Each house, for example, has the power to set its own rules and regulations. One of the special elements in this Constitution that significantly supported the idea of plurality of political representation is the guarantee of participation by minority parties.

Political limits of the Commonwealth Legislative Assembly

Despite the historical development of the legislative institution, which culminated with the approval of the Constitution, there are still structural flaws that limit its true autonomy and, therefore, its political role as the legitimate representative of the territory’s sovereignty and Puerto Rican social plurality. The most serious democratic shortcoming is the control by the U.S. government over the island’s affairs, through the automatic application of laws approved by Congress to the detriment of the principles of self-government (autonomy), democracy and free determination. This structural flaw greatly limits the development of the Legislature by making it an appendix to the U.S. Congress and the bureaucracy of the central (federal) government of the United States.

But there is another internal flaw that limits the parliamentary role of popular representation even more. That is the control that political parties have over the institution. Through various means of control and coordination, the political loyalty of the legislators to their political parties has been put ahead of their responsibility to their constituents, thus negating the democratic and constitutional principle of representation. Additionally, the parties have conspired in the past to limit citizen participation beyond voting in elections. Direct political participation, which is essential in democratic societies, has been systematically discouraged and subordinated to the habits of partisan paternalism. Another example is the law that imposes onerous conditions on any independent electoral initiative, such as the creation of new political parties. It is worth asking whether the current dissatisfaction with politicians, and particularly the members of the Legislative Assembly, whose disapproval ratings are rising, is rooted in the autocratic nature of the parties and their structural ties with the corporate sector, which pays the costs of election campaigns.

It should be noted that democratic shortcomings in parliamentary practices are not unique to Puerto Rico, but rather are the topic of constant discussion all around the world, including in the United States. The growing ties between the corporate sector and political parties (politicians) and their effect on the legislative process (public policies) have been identified as undemocratic practices that go against the principle of representation and constitutional ethics. The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (2011) prohibiting the state from imposing limits on the amount of private contributions to political campaigns has generated an extensive public discussion about the ever growing influence of capital (corporate groups) on government policies, to the detriment of the common good.

It is encouraging, however, that despite the disapproval of the Puerto Rican Legislature and the persistence of a political culture that favors the authority of the executive, the island is making an effort to advance corrective reforms that will improve the efficiency and responsiveness of the legislative process on one hand, while liberalizing the processes for organizing opposing and alternative movements that are capable of bringing forward new proposals for public policy and social legislation.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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