Policy

'Hamilton' Star Pushes for Action on Puerto Rico

Senators offer alternative to combat the island's debt crisis

Miranda asked Congress to help Puerto Rico. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The push to address the Puerto Rican debt crisis received a boost of star power Tuesday, with Broadway's Lin-Manuel Miranda heading to Capitol Hill to call for action.  

"I’m not here as a politician. I think anyone who sees or hears 'Hamilton' knows that I have a healthy cynicism and allergy to politics," Miranda said at a news conference in the Russell Senate Office Building. "But we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands.”  

The island U.S. territory is more than $72 billion in debt, and has already defaulted twice on its loan payments, with another deadline in May. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Tuesday that they plan to introduce a bill that would allow Puerto Rico to file for bankruptcy protection and restructure its debt.  

And they had some help publicizing their effort from Miranda, the Grammy and Tony award-winning creator of the smash hit "Hamilton," a musical chronicling the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton. Miranda's parents were born in Puerto Rico, and he spoke of returning to his father's hometown each summer to stay with his grandparents.  

"What I want to tell you is the town I grew up in, the town I just painted for you, the bank, the travel agency, those are all gone. Vega Alta is a dying town," Miranda said. "The only people who live there now are people who can’t afford to leave. And everyone else who can afford to leave is heading here or going somewhere else because there are no jobs. Last week the hospital was shut down because they can’t afford to pay their taxes.”  

Miranda and the lawmakers gathered Thursday pointed to a decline in essential services, including education and health care, as a result of the crisis. According to the Pew Research Center , Puerto Ricans are leaving the island territory in droves due to the economic turmoil. In 2014, 84,000 people left for the U.S. More Puerto Ricans, more than 5 million, now reside on the mainland, while 3.5 million people live on the island.  

The state of the island has shifted from an economic crisis to a humanitarian one, the lawmakers argued. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y., the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the House, said her own family has been affected. She described recently getting a tearful phone call from her sister in Puerto Rico who was distraught after her husband was in a construction accident, and learned the nearest public hospital did not have any antibiotics.  

"That day when she called crying, I came over to [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi when we were voting with tears in my eyes, crying, telling her, ‘We’ve got to do something. I just can’t believe that this is happening. The people of Puerto Rico deserve better, ’” Velázquez recalled.  

In December, Congress came close to addressing the crisis as part of its year-end spending package. Lawmakers failed to reach a deal , but Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., instructed the relevant committees to develop legislation by March 31.  

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said after the news conference that he has not spoken with Ryan recently about the issue, but said the relevant House Natural Resources committee is making progress on legislation to address the crisis. Natural Resources has held three hearings on the crisis so far this year, but there are only five legislative days left before the House leaves for Easter Recess.  

“I'm pleased that the committee is moving," Hoyer said. "That’s a positive sign but, as I said, time is of the essence."  

Hoyer and his fellow Democrats stressed the need for Congress to act. Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla said in an emotional speech following the omnibus passage that the island territory will not be able to pay off its debts without help from Congress.  

“The reality is that we cannot pay our debt. We cannot pay our debt," Padilla said in a Dec. 16 speech at the National Press Club. "It’s a Puerto Rican issue and we want to solve it, but we need the tools.”  

Padilla, who is not running for re-election, called on Congress to give the island the power to declare bankruptcy and restructure its debt, a process that is awarded to cities but not to U.S. territories.  

In the Senate, Gillibrand is hoping her bill will be a rallying point and help push for faster action. On Monday night, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced his own package to address the crisis, which included restructuring ability, and would establish a fiscal stability and reform board and a chief financial officer.  

Gillibrand said she has not spoken directly with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., about the issue, and it was her understanding that the Judiciary and Energy and Natural Resources Committees were working on pieces of legislation.  

Manuel was scheduled to meet with Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, on Tuesday but Murkowski's office said the meeting was canceled. Manuel did meet with the most senior Senate Republican, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who chairs the Financial Services Committee, which also has jurisdiction over the issue.  

Manuel ducked out of the news conference so he could go meet with Hatch, but before he left he referenced a line from an essay that Hamilton wrote after a hurricane ravaged his home island of St. Croix in the Caribbean.  

“There’s a scene sufficient to strike astonishment into angels," Manuel said. "Please help us.”

Contact Bowman at  bridgetbowman@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at @bridgetbhc .

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