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Fecteau: A Federal Failure in Puerto Rico

Friday, September 29, 2017


Puerto Rico

The massive humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico deserves a proportionate federal response. At the time of this writing, there are 1.5 million people -- approximately 44% of the population -- without drinking water. Many are starting to run low on food, and millions of people are left with no electricity. This disaster is only exacerbated by the inaction by the Republican-controlled Congress which is more intent on giving tax breaks to the wealthy than helping American citizens most impacted by this terrible hurricane – yes, Puerto Ricans are American citizens.

I want to first acknowledge President Donald Trump is rushing military personnel and vessels to the island, but this response is insufficient. Aid is indeed coming – that is not the point of contention. The scale and scope of the humanitarian efforts are scant without Congressional involvement.

Mr. Trump is more interested in building obstacles. He restricted travel to Puerto Rico for our lawmakers so they cannot even understand the true gravity of the situation and assess what federal action should be taken. Furthermore, the White House has acknowledged it is unwilling to request a federal aid package for Puerto Rico until early October – a stark contrast to the billions authorized after hurricane Harvey laid waste to Texas (a state Mr. Trump won).

Mr. Trump – strangely – even cited the debt the Puerto Rican government owes to Wall Street saying it “must be dealt with” during this crisis. So Wall Street before the lives of fellow Americans, Mr. President? I am not sure what he meant to be fair, but as I do recall, when big banks needed a bailout, they received it and so much more (tough luck to all the Americans on Puerto Rico!).

Mr. Trump has failed to make the people of Puerto Rico a priority the same way he made condemning those players that kneel during an NFL game an urgency. Mr. Trump could use his influence to prod Congress to act because it – just like Mr. Trump –  doesn’t seem too motivated at this point (Congress is too busy pushing a tax cut plan disguised as a tax reform package).

Congress does have the capability to act; sending a bill to President Trump’s desk for signature and a signal to those on the island: we care. This package should contain several vital elements. First, Congress could place a freeze Puerto Rico’s debt obligations ensuring that it can receive the appropriate amount of federal aid. Second, Congress could also waive the law (known as the Jones Act) which decrees that goods delivered to the island be on US-built vessels – this would expedite supply delivery. Third, Congress has to send a sizable federal aid package as soon as possible and not wait until the first week of October – even though Mr. Trump prefers to wait for some odd reason.

Americans are in need, and Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to think this is an urgency. Hence, Congress needs to make this a priority by helping our fellow countrymen and women – send a sincere bill to the President’s desk for signature already! This isn’t about partisanship; this is about doing the right thing for all Americans. Time is of the essence, but tell that to Mr. Trump and Congress.


Matt Fecteau ([email protected]) is a Master of Public Administration candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and an Iraq War veteran. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewFecteau


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