On Monday, August 13, 1917, Puerto Rican patriot Antonio R. Barceló opened the session of the Puerto Rico Senate. In his speech, Barceló highlighted the political advances for Puerto Rico in the second organic law, the Jones Act of March 2, 1917, granted to Puerto Rico by the U.S. Congress.

The politicians’ obvious satisfaction with the creation of an elected Senate was based on the 17 years that Puerto Rico had lived under the Foraker Act. In comparison to the Autonomous Charter granted in 1898 by the Spanish regime, the Foraker Act represented a step backwards for Puerto Rico’s aspirations for a government of its own. The best evidence of this step backwards in the island’s political development was the Executive Council.

Under the Foraker Act, the Executive Council had both executive and legislative powers. Its members advised the governor, who appointed them, and approved laws that their boss recommended. In this latter function, the Council played the role of the upper house of the Legislature, while the House of Delegates was elected by popular vote (but not including women). This composition of the Puerto Rico Legislature violated the principle of separation of powers that is an essential part of a republican system of government and ensured the unrestricted power of the U.S. executive branch. Another flaw of the Foraker Act was the fact that it contained no Bill of Rights.

No sooner was the Foraker Act approved than the main political parties of the island began to fight against it with the goal of replacing it with a more liberal statute that specifically included a Bill of Rights for Puerto Ricans and the creation of an elected Puerto Rico Senate. The entire island clamored for an elected Senate, not just the capital. In 1905, the municipalities, through their Municipal League Commission, approved sending a group of representatives to Washington to work for the elimination of the Executive Council and its replacement with an upper house elected by Puerto Ricans. At that time, issues such as agricultural credit facilities, loans for erecting public works, and other affairs under municipal jurisdiction were the subject of bitter differences of opinion between local officials and the Executive Council.

Muñoz Rivera, leader of the Puerto Rican Union Party, insisted that it was up to the United States to implement a wise and democratic system in Puerto Rico that included a Legislature made up completely of Puerto Ricans elected by their peers: “The Executive Council is the worst of the Foraker Act. If we do not remove it, we would be accepting the Foraker Act. And it is incomprehensible that with the resources to attack it we stand silent with our arms crossed and, when a good and fair moment arrives, we do not take advantage to press our cause.”

The period between the approval of the Foraker Act (1900) and 1917, when the United States entered World War I, was one of ardent opposition to the U.S. government’s rules by the island’s politicians. In July of 1906, the House of Delegates approved a proposal by José de Diego to send a request to U.S. Secretary of State Elihu Root “asking him to speak for the People of Puerto Rico to the People of the United States” about the oft-requested American citizenship and the creation of an island Senate elected by the island’s inhabitants.

In 1909, the situation came to a peak when 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 and against the way in which the executive branch is applying it.” They also called on the House of Delegates to vote for economic laws necessary for the wellbeing of the island and to be a critic of the administration.

It was not only the Unionists who were demanding radical changes to 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, openly expressed his hope that Congress would modify the composition of the Executive Council. Additionally, the Rules Committee appointed by the president of the United States in 1901 to review the new statute recommended that Congress create an elected Senate of 21 members, three for each of the seven electoral districts, and it also criticized the executive branch’s unlimited control of legislation.

The tension between the two legislative bodies reached a crisis in 1909 when the House of Delegates ended its session without approving, among other bills important for Puerto Rico, the annual budget for government spending for the coming fiscal year. The situation degenerated into a political crisis because the governor was left without the ability to use the resources of the treasury to cover operational costs. Then-Governor Regis H. Post was forced to call an extraordinary session of the House for the purpose of approving the budget. The House refused to approve it and instead appointed a committee, chaired by Muñoz Rivera, with the task of traveling to Washington to make their protest to the U.S. authorities about the situation caused by the Foraker Act. The Executive Council also appointed a committee to counter that of the House. Both delegations traveled to the U.S. capital and pressed their points of view with the federal authorities.

When informed of the situation, U.S. President William H. Taft sent a message to Congress that was exclusively focused on resolving the situation in Puerto Rico. The president explained that the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly had closed its session without approving the budget for the coming fiscal year and that the governor had called the Legislative Assembly into extraordinary session to resolve the problem, but the legislators had reaffirmed that they would not approve the general budget. In light of the unusual political situation, 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. This act by Congress, supported by the president, ended the worst crisis caused by the tension between the House of Delegates and the governor, represented by the Executive Council. (The Commonwealth Constitution of 1952 included a similar rule to avoid future fiscal crises as a result of conflicts between the legislative and executive branches.)

Between 1910 and 1917, another fourteen bills were filed in Congress to correct the anomalies of the Foraker Act. Finally, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act on March 2, 1917. Three years earlier, Resident Commissioner Muñoz Rivera had again filed a bill in Congress to create an elected Senate with rights of confirmation for appointments by the governor and granting the Puerto Rican Legislative Assembly the ability to override a veto by the governor.

The Jones Act finally introduced a Bill of Rights. The government was separated into three powers: the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The executive branch was led by the governor, who was appointed by the president of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The Puerto Rican people would elect both houses of the Legislature, the Senate and the House of Delegates. From that time on, the main leaders of the political parties would aspire to be president of the Senate, which became the highest position in the hierarchy for Puerto Ricans. In terms of economic and fiscal affairs, the Jones Act retained the dispositions of the Foraker Act. 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 when deemed necessary. As for the electoral process, the Jones Act called for general elections to choose the representatives for the legislative houses and the mayors to be held every four years beginning in 1920. The new Senate would consist of 19 members, two elected from each of the seven senatorial districts and five at-large.

Unionists, Republicans and Socialists all greeted the new Jones Act enthusiastically. Despite its limitations, it represented a political step forward for the development of the government in Puerto Rico because it established the principle of separation of powers.

With the election of the two legislative houses by direct vote of the public, the republican system of government was affirmed, though it was still within the framework of the United States’ imperial rule over Puerto Rico. Despite this achievement, however, the power of the governor appointed by the president was still enormous, and this limited the range of legislative activity. Under Article 34 of the Jones Act, when a law approved by the Puerto Rico Legislature was sent to the governor for his signature and the governor did not approve it, it was returned to the house where it had originated, along with the governor’s objections. If the measure was reconsidered and two thirds of the total members of both houses approved it again, it was again sent to the governor, and if he still refused to sign it, the bill was sent to the president of the United States. The president then had the power to approve it and make it law or veto it finally. This procedure constituted a double veto over legislation approved by the two houses of the legislature. Additionally, the Jones Act gave the governor line-item veto authority over allocations of public funds, giving the governor unlimited control over fiscal affairs. Finally, the Jones Act maintained Congress’ power to annul any law approved by the local Legislature. It is not surprising, therefore, that from the moment the new Senate was elected, it began playing a role in an unceasing and still incomplete struggle to gain greater political rights for Puerto Rico.

 

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

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