As Washington begins to react to the overwhelming devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, some things will proceed as usual. President Trump signed a disaster declaration on Thursday; Congress is working on an aid package that House Majority Leader Paul Ryan says will be ready sometime in October.
But the response to Maria, which has left most Puerto Ricans without power and many without running water, will also hinge on how Congress and the president approach the crisis the island was in before the storm hit.
For example: Puerto Rico essentially declared bankruptcy earlier this year, by a procedure that Congress made possible last summer. Should the Federal Emergency Management Agency waive its typical requirement that localities pay a 25 percent match for federal aid dollars? Jenniffer González-Colón, the island’s nonvoting congressional representative, says it should. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer, and Robert Menendez have endorsed that idea.
Later on, the fiscal control board put in place by that law will have to decide whether to continue with its austerity program, which is projected to inflict several more years of recession in order to keep paying off the island’s debts.
At some point, too, Congress may have to reconsider the Puerto Rican statehood drive, whose prospects may get a boost from the perception that the island’s plight is being ignored by a government in which it has no representation.
But before that will come a debate over the Jones Act, a century-old shipping law that’s often accused of stifling the Puerto Rican economy. Nydia Velázquez, the Puerto Rico–born congresswoman who represents parts of New York City, has said she will ask Congress for a one-year waiver to Jones Act requirements for the territory. It’s a good example of a policy question that will test Washington’s willingness to change its approach to Puerto Rico wholesale—to reconsider, in other words, whether…