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White House Pulls Plug On Congressional Flights to Puerto Rico

by Countable | 9.29.17

What’s the story?

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the White House and Pentagon are restricting any further travel by Members of Congress to Puerto Rico via military transport. Delegations were scheduled to travel to the island this weekend to witness the devastation first hand and assess the status of the federal response.

The White House told NBC News, "The White House, DHS, and DOD, working together, are asking to hold on any Puerto Rico/USVI travel outside of missions directly related to lifesaving and life-sustaining relief."

Why does it matter?

Despite Puerto Ricans being American citizens, the island is technically a commonwealth and only has a non-voting representative to Congress, Rep. Jennifer González-Colón. Puerto Ricans depend on the leverage of voting Members of Congress with large Puerto Rican populations to help pressure Congress and the White House to attend to the needs of the commonwealth.

One such lawmaker, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), plans to take a bipartisan delegation of 10 lawmakers to Puerto Rico on Friday to assess needs and the federal response directly. On Wednesday, he tweeted his disapproval with the administration’s restrictions on travelling to the island:

It is unclear yet how Menendez will be able to accomplish the trip following the administration’s new restriction, but they are working on it. Deputy Communications Director Juan Pachón told Countable in an email:

"I can confirm that Senator Menendez was the lead organizer of a bipartisan [Congressional Delegation] to Puerto Rico with several members. The information in regards to the restrictions by the [administration] is correct as reported by the Post. Our office is now trying to figure out alternatives to make this happen as the situation on the island is extremely dire and my boss is eager to get down there to assess the federal response thus far. Stay tuned as we make progress on this."

According to Rep.González-Colón’s office, of the three airports on the island, only San Juan airport is currently open to commercial travel. Airports in Ponce and Aguadilla are currently restricted solely to military and relief flights.

As of Tuesday the New York Times reported that the San Juan airport was accommodating 36 flights per hour, which is far below pre-Hurricane Maria levels. Additionally, only military and relief operation flights are allowed at the airport between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. Air traffic control capacity is only at about 20 percent, so it is much harder to direct planes to and from the island.

Two members of Congress have been able to reach the island since the storm, Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Velázquez, who is originally from Puerto Rico and now represents parts of Brooklyn, has been publicly critical of the administration’s response to the crisis. She referenced former President George W. Bush’s response after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which many saw as inadequate, to CNN on Tuesday, "This is going to be Mr. Trump’s Katrina."

Sen. Rubio has been careful to not criticize the current federal response and instead focus on advocating for increased attention and aid. He traveled to the island Monday and has been tweeting about the state of the crisis constantly since the storm hit:

What do you think?

Should the White House restrict congressional travel to the island via military transport? Is this an understandable step to focus resources in the midst of a crisis, or an attempt to limit potentially critical eyes on the relief effort?

Tell us in the comments what you think, then use the Take Action button to tell your reps!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: Department of Defense / Creative Commons)

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