City Council Urges Congress to Help Puerto Rico During Debt Crisis

In All by Tola Brennan

NEW YORK, N.Y. — Today at City Hall, the New York City Council passed resolutions asking Congress to help Puerto Rico survive the looming debt crisis. The commonwealth faces about $72 billion of outstanding payments and without bailout aid or restructuring will probably run out of money by November. A collapse of vital government services will mainly affect vulnerable elderly and low-income populations. So far, Congress has been slow to respond.

In late September, Puerto Rican officials sought help from a Senate panel to no avail. Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) cast doubt on their evidence and argued that a bailout would simply prolong the problem. With Puerto Ricans seemingly getting the cold shoulder, Jessica Garcia, 42, a worker’s rights advocate from Honduras thinks there are underlying issues. “To be blunt, the way that the U.S. has treated Puerto Rico is racist,” said Garcia. “Puerto Rican residents are not really perceived as equal.”

Council resolutions have no legislative impact but are symbolic gestures to New York’s congressional representatives who can exert influence in Washington. “It gives them support if they need more courage” said Garcia. “It’s an opportunity for the City Council to bring it out into the public forum.” While tangible impact is dubious, Council Member Karen Koslowitz had strong words. “We’ve gone to Albany on issues. We can go to Washington on issues,” she said.

The first resolution was sponsored by Bronx Deputy Leader Ritchie Torres, a council member of Puerto Rican descent, and calls upon Congress to pass The Puerto Rico Chapter 9 Uniformity Act of 2015 (H.R. 870). Currently the commonwealth is not a state and cannot file for bankruptcy. This prevents debt restructuring and means drastic cuts will take place to appease creditors. Passing the bill would amend this.

The second resolution, also sponsored by Torres, calls upon Congress to pass the Improving the Treatment of the U.S. Territories Under Federal Health Programs Act of 2015 (H.R. 2635) which makes reforms to Medicare and Medicaid. As a non-state, Puerto Rico gets far less funding than states do and this bill would help end the disparity.

A third resolution, sponsored by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a native Puerto Rican and the first to hold a citywide elected position, calls for an economic hardship exemption from The Jones Act. Also called the Merchant Marine Act of of 1920, it’s a protectionist measure to benefit the American shipping industry. Goods passing between U.S. ports must travel on ships owned and crewed by Americans. This lack of competition inflates rates and as an island, the reliance on shipping means artificial hikes on the cost of living since many necessities are more expensive.

Puerto Rico already has a higher poverty rate than anywhere else in the Union, making these policies even more damaging. “Some people are not able to remember that we are dealing with human beings who are affected by these policies,” said Garcia. “This is hurting a lot of people back home.”