Shortly after the distribution of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine began writing the series of “American Crisis” essays that inspired Americans to maintain their arduous rebellion against colonialism. “We fight not to enslave, but to set a country free, and to make room upon the earth for honest men to live in,” argued Paine in a series of pamphlets that concluded: “Our citizenship in the United States is our national character. Our citizenship in any particular state is only our local distinction. By the latter we are known at home, by the former to the world. Our great title is AMERICANS.”
Yet the United States has in the 240 years since its rebellion against taxation against representation frequently failed to realize the promise that Paine’s contemporaries made when they signed their names to a document that opened with the declaration :“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
The disconnect between founding principles and contemporary practices has often been in evidence: in an initial acceptance of human bondage, in the brutal dislocations of Native Americans, in the denial of the franchise to women and people of color and to those who lacked the wealth to pay a poll tax, in the refusal to embrace the constitutional requirement of equal protection under the law for all Americans. There has been tremendous progress, to be sure. But the continued rejection of the demand of the people of the District of Columbia (New Columbia) for statehood offers one ongoing reminder that the promise of the founding document (that just powers would derive “from the consent of the governed”) is unrealized for millions of Americans. Another is the steadily more extreme and painfully unequal treatment of Puerto Rico.
Last week, as members of Congress rushed to finish their business before jetting off for the July 4 break, the Senate joined the House in voting for the “Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act” or “PROMESA.” Sponsored by Congressman Sean Duffy, R-Wisconsin, with encouragement from House Speaker Paul Ryan, this assault on basic democratic and constitutional premises won the support of Republicans and most Democrats. It is now the law. But it is bad law.
Ryan and Duffy, both proponents of crude austerity schemes that blame the victims of speculators for the harm done to communities, states and nations, refused to accept reasonable proposals for addressing a debt crisis that has hobbled Puerto Rico. The debt crisis is real, as have been the crises faced by many American communities and states. A long and severe economic downturn, speculation and policy missteps have combined to create a circumstance that Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew says has “already harmed the health, safety and welfare of the 3.5 million Americans living in Puerto Rico.” Yet, rather than respond with an eye toward renewing and strengthening the economy of the commonwealth, Ryan and congressional Republicans came up with austerity schemes to punish the vast majority of Puerto Ricans. And, with the assistance of key Democrats in the House and now the Senate, those schemes have been approved and signed into law by a president who has observed with considerable understatement that this emergency “solution” is “not perfect.”