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Jack Lew’s morale-boosting trip to Puerto Rico

Mark Garrison Jan 18, 2016
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Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew visits Puerto Rico on Wednesday, as the $72 billion debt crisis in the U.S. territory keeps getting worse. But there are major limits to what Lew and the Obama administration can do.

The story is about politics and economics, governments and investors. But it’s important to pause to remember the regular people caught in the middle.

“I was just in Puerto Rico,” recalled Charles Venator Santiago, political scientist at University of Connecticut. “The buses no longer work because they haven’t been able to pay their fuel obligation.”

He also says his mom and several friends are waiting on overdue tax refunds. Good luck with that. Puerto Rico’s contemporary debt troubles have deep roots.

“Puerto Rico doesn’t really have an engine of economic growth. Ever since 2006, it has been in an economic funk,” said Ted Hampton, a vice president at Moody’s, who has been following the territory’s troubles.

Now, it is broke. Enter Secretary Lew. The trip is a show of support and seriousness from the administration, which is seeking support in Congress for its proposal to allow Puerto Rico’s debt to be restructured and put in an oversight mechanism. But that’s just about all it can do, propose.

The Constitution is clear: the legislative branch has the power. Lew said it himself in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan Friday: “Only Congress can enact the legislative measures necessary to fully resolve this problem.”

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