Politics & Government

How Congressman Raul Labrador made a mark by helping his homeland

Republican Rep. Raul Labrador jokes that there are only six Puerto Ricans in his home state of Idaho: his five kids and him.

In Congress, he’s the only Republican in the House of Representatives born in Puerto Rico, where he spent his first 13 years with his single mother.

Though he said he had no desire to get involved in the issue, Labrador has found himself battling to prevent Puerto Rico from defaulting on $2 billion in debt on Friday.

The House passed a bill to help Puerto Rico earlier this month, and the Senate approved it Wednesday evening with a 68-30 vote. The votes will hold off a crisis that has already resulted in closing hundreds of schools and reducing other government services in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory since 1898.

Getting the bill to President Barack Obama, who’s eager to sign it, will mark a major win for the third-term congressman, who spent four months shaping the legislation.

“It’s the biggest issue that we’ve dealt with this year,” Labrador, 48, said in an interview in his fifth-floor office on Capitol Hill.

Since getting elected to Congress in 2010, Labrador has developed a national reputation as something of a bomb thrower. He’s a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, a conservative group that thrives on challenging the Washington establishment and helped oust former Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio last year.

Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and one of the Puerto Rico bill’s chief sponsors, said Labrador’s work on the legislation could add to his credentials as a lawmaker.

“Everyone gets reputations over here. I think this is one that may have expanded his reputation because he’s clearly seen now as somebody who can get in the weeds and do the detail work, ” Bishop said. “He made it possible. He needs to get credit for it.”

Labrador said some of his half-siblings still lived in Puerto Rico, including his brother Eric, who’s the president of the Puerto Rican Football Federation.

He said it was a coincidence that the Puerto Rico bill fell under the jurisdiction of the two committees he sits on: Natural Resources and Judiciary. His Republican colleagues on the panels were quick to take note.

“It was really fascinating because it’s not something I sought,” Labrador said. “When I came to Congress, I didn’t come here looking to talk about issues related to Puerto Rico. . . . But it happened to not just fall within my jurisdiction, but it had something to do with my background and experience.”

When urged by colleagues to sponsor the bill, Labrador declined, figuring he’d have more clout if he didn’t: “I know how this place works: I said, ‘No, I don’t want to be the sponsor of the bill because then you’ll stop taking my advice.’ ’’

The bill, called the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, creates a new federal board to oversee Puerto Rico’s finances.

Creditors will be barred from using the courts to collect money while the board gets organized and Puerto Rico restructures its more than $70 billion in debt.

The conservative Heritage Foundation, which opposed the bill, called the plan “dangerous and unprecedented,” saying it would permit the government of Puerto Rico to funnel its resources to other people and government programs while shutting the door on legitimate creditors.

“I don’t like it but it was something that was necessary,” Labrador said. “It’s a short legal stay so we can get the board working.”

The issue has drawn opposition from members of both parties in Congress.

In the House, Republican Dan Newhouse of Washington state, who voted against the bill, said Puerto Rico had to “live within its means” and needed more pro-growth conservative solutions to rev its economy.

In the Senate, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, another opponent, said the only thing the legislation promised the people of Puerto Rico “is years of subjugation at the hands of an anti-democratic control board.”

After the House vote, Republican Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin called Puerto Rico “a humanitarian disaster in the making” and said the situation would worsen if Congress didn’t meet the Friday deadline.

Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, speaking at a forum sponsored by the Center for American Progress Action Fund last Thursday, said his government would have no choice but to default on its obligations without help.

“It’s just a reality: We do not have the money,” he said.

As part of his work, Labrador met with the governor and other top Puerto Rican officials. He said he had told them the government had been acting irresponsibly for 40 years.

“You know, I’m proud of being a Puerto Rican. There’s amazing people who live there, but the government has let them down,” Labrador said. “Puerto Rico is a perfect example of what a socialist society would do in America. So if you love Bernie Sanders, you would love what’s happening in Puerto Rico. . . . Idaho is a perfect contrast to Puerto Rico. We have a government that balances its budget.”

Labrador said many critics in Puerto Rico said the legislation didn’t go far enough and wanted Congress to provide more aid.

“They think I’m not Puerto Rican enough because I’m not out here advocating for Puerto Rico all the time,” Labrador said. “That’s not my job. My job is to advocate for the people in Idaho. . . . I’m not much into bailouts.”

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6154, @HotakainenRob