Over the weekend, Puerto Rico welcomed more than 30 members of Congress —to ever visit the island. The contingent of Democratic lawmakers set foot on Puerto Rican soil during a trying time for the U.S. territory, still grappling with and .
"It is more devastating than many of us realized. I'm glad that we came," Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-California, told CBS News. "The reason why we came is to touch, feel and smell and understand with our hearts and our minds what the heck is going on in Puerto Rico."
On Saturday, the delegation held a round table with local officials to discuss post-Hurricane Maria recovery efforts, unpopular austerity measures and federal investment to the island. Some of Puerto Rico's mayors and legislators pleaded with congressional leaders for more federal assistance, the repeal of the Jones Act, the end or modification of the fiscal oversight board established by Congress in 2016 and more local control over recovery funds sent by Washington.
The House and Senate Democrats on the island are attending a winter retreat organized by Bold PAC, a super PAC run by Cárdenas that serves as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' fundraising arm.
"The fact that we as Congress have approved tens of billions of dollars and then a small, small amount of that money has actually been approved and actually has arrived in Puerto Rico is shocking," Cárdenas said. "And that, in my opinion, has continued to contribute to the demise of Puerto Rico's economy, to the death toll in Puerto Rico."
According to a study accepted by the Puerto Rican government, nearly 3,000 people died when Hurricane Maria struck the island — making it the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in 100 years. The island incurred about $90 billion in damages when the powerful storm hammered the U.S. territory in September of 2017, debilitating an already fragile economy.
For years, Puerto Rico — home to approximately 3.2 million U.S. citizens — has been plagued by economic woes, exacerbated by a ballooning debt. Since Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, known as PROMESA, to address the mounting debt crisis, a federal fiscal board has directed the island's government to make budget cuts to several welfare and educational programs, angering a large segment of the population.
Mayors Carmen Yulín Cruz and María Meléndez — who lead the two largest cities on the island, San Juan and Ponce, respectively — told the delegation that the fiscal board is an undemocratic institution which has hindered the reconstruction of the island by ordering deep austerity cuts that the Puerto Rican government has no power to stop. The board, known locally as "la junta," is made up of seven members appointed by the White House.
"You must eliminate the fiscal control board. It doesn't work," Yulín Cruz told lawmakers, adding later, "After two years of trying to get a grip, the board has not accomplished anything. They have not audited the debt. And so, they are literally flying a plane without a control panel."
Cárdenas said he was concerned about the board's power to "override" the local Puerto Rican government and suggested that the Democratic-controlled House could look to "restructure" the institution. "Obviously PROMESA was an ill-fated action by Congress. It was something that was done very quickly, but obviously was not done with Puerto Rico's best interest in mind," he added.
The mayors asked the Democratic legislators to repeal the Jones Act, a centuries-old law that requires goods shipped within the U.S. to be transported on ships operated and built by Americans, arguing that the shipping restrictions hurt Puerto Rico's ability to receive relief aid during a disaster because the island is barred from using cheaper foreign ships.
The municipality leaders also said local communities should have the power to decide where to use federal relief funds, instead of Washington or the governor's mansion dictating the destination of critical aid.
Cárdenas said the proposal reportedly being considered by the White House that would divert billions of dollars in disaster aid funds for Puerto Rico and several states affected by natural disasters to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is a scheme by President Trump to "steal money" from areas across the U.S. that desperately need federal assistance.
"It appears this president is willing to even consider something as unconscionable as building a vanity wall with billions of dollars by taking it away from the life and safety of American citizens around the country," he said.
If the White House decides to declare a national emergency and roll out the proposal to begin construction of a border barrier, Cárdenas said his party will oppose the move vigorously. The first action Democrats would take, he said, will be to challenge the proposal in court. Secondly, he said House Democrats would pass legislation to reverse the maneuver and hope Republican senators "follow through and check the president on such an atrocious act."
"And third, I believe that we will see is an outcry of the American public that this is an inappropriate use and action of presidential authority," he said.