The former governor of Puerto Rico, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, wrote an essay last month in Spanish called “La fiebre no está en la sábana,” which literally means “The Fever is Not on the Bed Sheet,” a saying that speaks to the superficiality of the island’s dysfunctional political problems. For Puerto Rico to truly be a better political society, we must dig deeper, go beyond the “bed sheet,” and truly reform a political system that has been egocentric, self-serving, and quite frankly, has kept the island passive for decades. We have published a loose English translation of Vilá’s essay, which calls for electoral reform that actually follows the process of the world’s top democracies.
It’s no secret that over the last thirty years the discontent and dissatisfaction [Puerto Ricans] have with the Legislature has resulted into a lengthy and gradual crescendo of complaints and “reform” legislated to have resolved nothing.
Our reasons for these reforms are numerous: because legislators do not work hard enough and had no time to legislate their projects, because we need to create the second ordinary session of the Legislature and also adopted the principle of full-time legislator. Because they spend too much so we gave them a “stipend” (as if it were not the same) and had them pay taxes on that income. Because they legislated late at night, we a strict schedule and so they are not seen as being too close with the candidate for Governor, we created the third ballot.
Because there are way too many legislators and because they spend too much, we the people of Puerto Rico voted for the one-chamber system, but then the PNP [pro-statehood party] ignored the people’s mandate and now there are way too many legislators, who spend too much and annoy the people. I would venture to say that if a solution to have the people vote for no chamber or no legislators, it would be pass.
And last but not least, the scandal and the resignation of Sen. Roberto Arango of the PNP have added to this debate.
All these proposals, as legislated and proposed now, are all symptoms, but not the root of the problem. Our biggest problem is the intellectual quality, diligence, and ethics of our legislators. Nothing proposed will address that issues, which is the real problem. The proposal is being discussed now so that we have a Legislature with fewer legislators, what it means is that instead of having Chuchin and Arango in the same chamber, we will have either Arango or Chuchin. That’s not real change.
I’ve seen this problem from different perspectives and experiences: as a consultant at La Fortaleza when it approved the second session, as a legislator when legislators approved the full-time law, as the Resident Commissioner —where I could see the differences with the federal Congress— and as a governor having to govern with a PNP-controlled legislature. The experience gained and the failed attempts of legislative reforms aimed at a deeper diagnosis of the problem: the poor quality of our legislators is the result of a deficiency in our democracy.
It is true that we as a people vote for these legislators, but the other truth is that every four years in Puerto Rico almost nobody knows who their legislators and candidates for the House and Senate are. We live in a highly “executive” system, which is what truly influences move the elections for our Governor and Mayors. These are the ones who work to have the people know and think about them when they vote. But let’s be honest, people are not thinking about their legislative candidates when they go to the polls. That is the root of our problem and legislators who are elected are the symptom.The problem is a deficiency in our political and democratic framework.
I have always believed that the remedy for the deficiencies must be more a democratic democracy. And in the case of our Legislature, after so many scandals and mediocrity of so many failed attempts at reform, it’s time to make real changes that are deep and dramatic. We have the power as a people to truly examine who the candidates are for our Legislature.
Therefore I propose to open a discussion about we can amend our Constitution effectively, so that legislators are chosen in a separate election from those of Governors and Mayors, just like in other countries and how it is done most of the time in the United States. (We should also discuss how many legislators we want.) We can keep the legislators’ terms to last four years, but the elections would occur every two years between the elections of Governors and Mayors. Thus, in this election the only thing on the ballot would be candidates for the Legislature and the people can focus on the performance of their legislators and the other candidates that could replace them. What I propose is a direct relationship is between the legislature and their constituents. Let’s get to the root of the problem. The fever is not on the bed sheet.
Aníbal Acevedo Vilá