Congress fiddled while Puerto Rico burned over the weekend.
The United States territory out in the Caribbean is facing down $72 billion in debt payments, on top of a brutal economic crisis — its unemployment rate is 11.8 percent, its poverty rate is 45 percent, and hundreds of thousands have already fled the island. Puerto Rico has already defaulted on $221 million, and it will default on another $422 million by the end of today.
Then, come July 1, a whopping $2 billion will come due.
The White House already has a road map for how to aid the island, and House Speaker Paul Ryan is trying to corral the Republican-led Congress into putting something together — to no avail, at least so far. And it's worth unraveling the bad logic and cheap moralism that undergirds Congress' sclerosis on the issue.
"They got into this mess over the years. I don't think we need to add to their bad decisions," said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), who was born in Puerto Rico. "When I go home to North Carolina, no one is telling me to help bail out Puerto Rico," added Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
But the idea that Puerto Rico got itself into this mess and now needs to take its lumps is a gross oversimplification of the situation.
Let's begin with the weird no man's land Puerto Rico occupies by being neither a full-fledged U.S. state nor a full-fledged foreign country. It doesn't control its own currency, so it lacks the macroeconomic tools the U.S. federal government has to stabilize the economy and fight recessions. At the same time, it doesn't have the same access to the annual churn of federal spending that stabilizes each state's economy, and prevents them from getting too far out of sync with each other. Puerto Rico receives considerably lower Medicare and Medicaid payments, despite paying the same level of payroll tax. Its citizens can't get many U.S. tax credits or federal food stamps. Much of the aid from ObamaCare doesn't apply to them. Their businesses can't apply for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Some oddball shipping regulations even jack up the island's costs of living.
Of course, Puerto Rico is in that no man's land because it's been on the wrong side of America's history of colonialism. So, not surprisingly, U.S. law has treated the island capriciously over the years, in ways that vastly exacerbated its current crisis.
Go read David Dayen's excellent deep dive from December for the details, or watch John Oliver's recent exposé. But the short version is an old tax break passed by Congress attracted major businesses like manufacturing and pharmaceuticals to Puerto Rico for decades, then Congress phased the break out between 1996 and 2006 to offset another set of tax cuts on the mainland. Jobs and businesses stampeded off the island, and then the Great Recession hit in 2008.
Yet another quirk of law meant payments from Puerto Rico's debt were exempt from federal, state, and local taxes, making it a uniquely attractive investment for Wall Street. So money flooded in, and Puerto Rico lawmakers loaded up on debt for various projects and free electricity for much of the island; they even wrote a clause into the island's constitution making payment on some of those bonds a higher priority than police and drinking water. At one point, Puerto Rico lawmakers even created a public corporation funded by tax revenue — called COFINA — to issue new debt, so they could get around constitutional limits on how much debt they're allowed to take on.
Then, of course, the economic crunch arrived. Puerto Rico fired 30,000 public workers, closed 100 schools, and hiked payroll taxes by over 50 percent to keep its finances in line. All this did was drive the island's economy even further into the ditch.
So that's what got us here. Now how do we fix it?
The first and most obvious solution is to allow Puerto Rico access to some sort of bankruptcy proceeding. But Chapter 9 bankruptcy for Puerto Rico was mysteriously written out of congressional legislation in 1984 for reasons no one can explain. It's still straightforward policy but tricky politics, because U.S. states can't use bankruptcy either, and the GOP in particular doesn't want the fix for Puerto Rico to set any precedent that could allow states in the door.
That's probably a demand lawmakers can work with, but it's also a silly demand. The availability of bankruptcy in U.S. law is an unusually civilized hallmark of our economy — one that recognizes lenders take a risk when they lend as much as borrowers do when they borrow, and so both parties should take a haircut when that bet goes bad. Bankruptcy is the process by which debt payments are restructured and written off so everyone takes that haircut. (For that reason it's also silly to call this a "bailout" for Puerto Rico.)
The other fix is to bring the same support states get from federal spending to the island. The White House's plan would equalize Medicare, Medicaid, and some tax credits for Puerto Rico, while giving its municipalities and public corporations access to Chapter 9.
That's the most practical stuff. But there are more ambitious possible fixes, too: We could make Puerto Rico a full-fledged state. As Dayen explained, some observers think much of the debt could be declared unconstitutional because of that aforementioned COFINA gambit. Finally, there's an open debate over whether the Federal Reserve already can choose to just buy up Puerto Rico's bonds itself, and thus give the island some financial breathing room.
At any rate, observers seem to think lawmakers consider July 1 the real deadline — evidence that "billions with a b" is what's required to turn heads nowadays.
But they need to come up with something. Because while Puerto Rico's own leaders certainly didn't cover themselves in glory on this one, Wall Street hedge funds and the U.S. government are all just as culpable. And it's the regular working people of Puerto Rico who are set to pay the price for their mistakes.