The strongest political opposition to the Foraker Act in the first decade of the 20th century came from the Puerto Rico Unionist Party, which was led by Luis Muñoz Rivera. In 1909, the Unionist Central Board, whose members held 35 seats in the House of Delegates, decided it was necessary “to act energetically against the substance of the Foraker Act, which destroys Puerto Rico’s personality…” They also called on the House of Delegates to vote for economic laws necessary for the wellbeing of the island, to be a critic of the executive and to use whatever political means available “to get these laws passed and to correct the administration in an efficient manner.” Others also showed their discontent with the limitations imposed on the legislative branch by the Foraker Act. Puerto Rico’s first resident commissioner, Federico Degetau, presented several bills in Congress between 1901 and 1904 to amend the law, and his fellow Republican leader, Manuel F. Rossy, expressed his hope that Congress would modify the composition of the Executive Council.

The tension between the two legislative bodies reached a crisis in 1909 when the House of Delegates ended its session without approving the annual budget for government spending. The situation created an administrative crisis, leaving the government without the ability to cover its costs in the following fiscal year. Governor Regis H. Post was forced to call an extraordinary session of the Assembly, just to approve the budget, but the House designated a committee chaired by Muñoz Rivera to present their displeasure with the Foraker Act to U.S. authorities.

U.S. President William H. Taft, when informed of the crisis caused by the Assembly’s refusal to approve the budget, sent a message to Congress that was exclusively focused on resolving the situation in Puerto Rico. “This action leaves the island government without the means to sustain itself after this coming June 30 … which is extremely serious.” The president recommended that Congress amend the Foraker Act to provide that the budget for the previous fiscal year would continue in effect if the local Legislative Assembly did not approve the government budget. Congress approved that amendment to the Foraker Act in July of 1909, thus ending the worst crisis caused by the tension between the House of Delegates and the executive branch.

Between 1910 and 1917, numerous bills were introduced to expand legislative powers in Puerto Rico. Specifically, in February of 1914, Resident Commissioner Muñoz Rivera introduced legislation in Congress to create an elected Senate that would replace the Executive Council and would give the Senate the power to confirm appointments by the governor. It would also allow the Legislative Assembly to override the governor’s veto and pass laws.

Finally, in January of 1916, Representative William Jones introduced a bill in Congress that created a new organic law for Puerto Rico. The Jones Act, unlike the previous Foraker Act, included a bill of rights and separated the government into three powers, following the traditional liberal formula: executive, legislative and judicial branches. With respect to economic and fiscal affairs, the Jones Act did not alter the Foraker Act. Additionally, the United States retained control of defense, customs,immigration, mail, and lighthouses. Congress reserved the right to annul any legislation approved by the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly and to impose legislation on the island as it deemed necessary.

Unionists, Republicans and Socialists all greeted the new Jones Act enthusiastically, despite its limitations, as it represented a political step forward for Puerto Rico, based on its installation of a local legislature elected by the people. The Jones Act gave Puerto Ricans the right to elect two houses of the legislature. The House of Representatives consisted of 39 members and the Senate of 19. Direct election of the two legislative bodies affirmed the principle of separation of powers under a republican system of government. However, under Article 34 of the Jones Act, when a bill approved by the Puerto Rico Legislature was not approved by the governor, it could be sent to the president of the United States if it received a two-thirds vote by both houses. The president would either sign or reject the law, so the Jones Act established a double veto, both by the governor and by the president, over legislation approved by the Puerto Rico legislative bodies. As if that were not enough, the Jones Act also allowed the governor to veto specific line items in the budget, thus giving the governor unlimited control over fiscal affairs.

Despite the obvious shortcomings in terms of democratic procedures and political rights, the Jones Act made the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly the central focus of politics on the island. From 1917 to 1949, all political leaders in Puerto Rico aspired to the post of president of the Senate, in addition to leading their political party, and to be seen as a great legislator. Antonio R. Barceló, the main figure in the Unionist Party in 1917, was elected the first president of the Puerto Rico Senate on August 13, 1917. In January of 1949, Luis Muñoz Marín traded the post of president of the Senate to become the first elected governor in the island’s history.

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

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