The Politics of Puerto Rico Disaster Aid

September 26, 2017

It has dawned on many people this week that the devastating hurricane that has hit Puerto Rico is not getting as much attention as those that recently hit Florida or Texas. Likewise, the U.S. response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico has been slow, and a relief package does not appear to be a congressional priority in the same way it was for the previous two hurricanes this season.

Why is that?

A lot of theories are being thrown around. I wrote my dissertation on territorial politics, so I have some relevant knowledge (although I don’t really think this is about territorial politics, per se). Here are seven things that I think are relevant to the situation.

1. Most disaster relief spending is contested, and it can also wear on Congress. Most Members of Congress agree that substantial emergency disaster relief is a reasonable congressional response to hurricanes, but some Members believe disaster relief should be paid for or otherwise offset up front, either on principle or as a specific leverage opportunity to cut spending. You saw this with Sandy, and Harvey, and Irma. It’s not like a hurricane that hits the mainland doesn’t generate contest in Congress over relief. And like most congressional spending, there’s a weariness to it. As the third hurricane, some Members are going to become *more* concerned about the deficit spending, even if that is, in principle, irrational.

2. Puerto Rico has no Senators or Representatives. This is the factor you hear about if you turn Twitter on. And it is certainly true that territories, in general, tend to get less distributional benefits than states. The connection is obvious. But I also think the mechanism isn’t quite as obvious as people think. Three Representatives don’t carry much weight in the House, certainly not enough to leverage those votes as a bloc. Two Senators is better—individuals in the Senate can cause all sorts of procedural problems and thus generally have more leverage—but it’s still not, on its own as a pair of votes, that much leverage.

The more hidden advantage of having Senators and Representatives is that (1) it creates official advocates who will make disaster relief their singular intense priority immediately and continuously; and (2) it creates personal relationships between these advocates and other Members of Congress, relationships that have both a history and a future. Right now, there’s no Senator with a direct constituent concern for Puerto Rico, nor any Senator with a personal relationship with such a Senator. Those things matter, perhaps as much or more than a few votes on the floor. But the most important reason it would help PR to have Senators is…

3. Many Americans don’t see PR as part of the United States. For better or worse, people are going to be more willing to support disaster relief for places that are in the United States than they are for random places in the world. Most Americans probably think of Puerto Rico as somewhere between “part of the United States” and “some random place in the world.” If Puerto Rico has two Senators and its full complement of Representatives (probably 3), it would unmistakably be part of the United States (like Hawaii) and many Americans would be more likely to see people who live there as part of the shared community in which they are obliged to support disaster relief, without question. Presumably, many Americans don’t realize Puerto Rican citizens are U.S. citizens. That can’t help. It would unambiguously be an island with millions of U.S. citizens  if it was as state and had full representation in Congress.

4. Puerto Rico *isn’t* part of the U.S. the way the Arizona Territory was. The relationship between the U.S. and its external territories, especially Puerto Rico, is complicated. Puerto Rican citizens are U.S. citizens, pay social security taxes, and have rights to move to the mainland at any time. On the other hand, most don’t pay federal income taxes, they can’t vote in the presidential election, and they don’t have a traditional territorial government (for instance, the governor is elected by the people rather than appointed by POTUS). They also have a political and cultural history distinct from the United States. So relative to the mainland territories of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Puerto Rico is somewhat more like “some random place in the world.”

5. Racism. I have no doubt that one factor related to all of this is that Puerto Rico has a large non-white population (the exact demographics are tough to know, because self reporting of white/Mestizo/Latino/mixed is a complication). To what degree this is an independent factor rather than just an input into why people don’t see PR as part of the United States is hard to discern. After all, Hawaii has a non-white supermajority, and while that probably creates some hostility from those on the mainland, it doesn’t seem to be a driving factor in distributional politics against the state. The official languages of Puerto Rico are Spanish and English, but Spanish is spoken by the vast majority of the population. This creates further cultural divides between the island and the mainland, and may create additional cultural racism.

6. Media Infrastructure. One problem after the hurricane was that there was little or no U.S. media on the island to report back pictures or video of the devastation. This is in part derivative of the already-mentioned factors, particularly the Spanish language culture and the “foreign” perception of the island, but also because it is, well, an island. It’s not an easy place to get to; if a hurricane wiped out  Chicago, you’d have camera crews driving in from everywhere to let people know about it. If an island goes down in the Caribbean and loses communications, it’s just not easy to get there quickly with the infrastructure to do good immediate reporting.

7. Presidential leadership, or lack thereof. If the President was more interested in the devastation in Puerto Rico, there would have been much more attention paid and a much quicker response. But he wasn’t/isn’t and so there wasn’t. As Jonathan Bernstein pointed out this morning, the president spent the weekend fighting with the NFL and when he finally got around to Puerto Rico, he sort of blamed their debt crisis for their predicament. This stands in contrast to his statements and actions after Harvey and Irma, which were normal and well-received, if not particularly distinguishing. Nothing has the power to focus politics on a particular event like the bully-pulpit of the president. Trump’s lack of agenda control has been obvious for a while, and as in other cases it’s not clear whether it’s odd strategic choices, incompetence, or just a lack of message discipline.

Of the seven items on this list, I think the fundamental one is #3, that most Americans don’t see Puerto Rico as part of their national community. Of course, as discussed above many of the items are endogenous and so I definitely agree that if Puerto Rico had Senators, PR would be seen as part of the community and we would have had quicker and more decisive relief action. I’m hopeful that Puerto Rico will ultimately receive a similar package of aid to what Texas and Florida get, but I’m not holding my breath. Opponents will probably do some foot-dragging, and the fact that Puerto Rico *is* exempt from a fair amount of federal taxation does create a slim-reed of an argument that this is in some ways foreign aid and the Puerto Ricans less deserving of our help than the Floridians. But remember, Puerto Rico is a devastatingly poor place (it would be the poorest state per capita if it was a state) within the United States, and for that reason alone it probably deserves more of our federal generosity during a disaster than more prosperous areas of the country.



5 Responses to The Politics of Puerto Rico Disaster Aid

  1. Dctravel on September 26, 2017 at 6:00 pm

    Interesting take. On the media side (and I admittedly don’t know enough about the local media), many of the tourist hotels show NY or South Florida network news. I wonder if a smaller local news footprint is a factor, or if the concentration of local media away from the major networks has an impact?

  2. Rashaad M. Abdur-Rahman on September 27, 2017 at 10:03 am

    I think the overriding factor to remember should be that Puerto Ricans are ” American Citizens”! and should be accorded the same benefit of relief as every other American State in a disaster.

  3. Bill Harshaw on September 27, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    With multiple representatives in Congress areas of concern can be divided up: one rep does agriculture, another banking, another transport. With this specialization comes relationships with the bureaucrats in the executive branch, making them more conscious of the state/territory and more likely to respond quickly.

  4. bert boyson on September 28, 2017 at 10:24 am

    This disaster calls for innovative leadership in Puerto Rico and is also an opportunity to address some of the issues raised in the article. The power structure rebuilding is an example where the opportunity now exists to use latest technology in power generation and distribution and to develop more resistant distribution methods, eg underground cabling to the maximum extent possible. Likewise in regard to the rebuilding of homes and office buildings. Getting the funds is the big issue and harnessing the power of supportive media would help a great deal. Good Luck to our fellow Americans on the Island.

  5. Larry Stangl on September 28, 2017 at 4:48 pm

    The poor condition of PR’s electric infrastructure was well known prior. Their “Debt Crises” is due to their own mismanagement. There are many non-citizens in the USA who pay federal taxes without representation. Why don’t most Puerto Ricans pay? Americans gave Hattie massive aid despite it not being a USA Territory nor citizens.It was the humanitarian thing to do. We should give massive aid to PR & the US Virgin Islands, etc. just because it’s the humanitarian thing to do. You won’t live more than a week w/o water. Where are our Large Helicopter Assult (LHA) ships? Why weren’t they on the way when the Department of Defence spotted an invasion in our own backyard? The DoD has 100’s of cargo planes that don’t need an airstrip to drop a cargo of water.

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