WASHINGTON -- When he was writing his Broadway sensation "Hamilton," Lin-Manuel Miranda drew inspiration from an essay penned by the show's namesake in 1772. In the letter, Alexander Hamilton begged his father to help St. Croix, the Caribbean island where he was raised, recover after a massive hurricane.
On Tuesday, Miranda, who also stars as Hamilton, made a plea to Congress on another island's behalf, asking for help for Puerto Rico, the place he spent summers while growing up.
St. Croix was devastated by the hurricane when Hamilton was just a teenager. Now, Miranda's Puerto Rico is being devastated by a man-made storm largely created by Washington. And the effects, he told reporters and lawmakers at a Capitol Hill news conference, are even worse.
"We face a financial crisis that triples anything you're experiencing here in the United States, and it's a solvable, fixable crisis," he said.
Puerto Rico's fortunes have been repeatedly whipsawed by Congress, most recently in 1996 when then-President Bill Clinton and lawmakers decided to end tax laws that aided the island's economy, phasing them out by 2006 without setting up a replacement plan for economic development. Since then, the territory has lost tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of thousands of residents in an epic "brain drain."
Puerto Rico's government patched the holes in its budget by floating numerous bonds, but with an economy that has shrunk since 2006, the debt piled up and now stands at more than $72 billion.
Unlike municipalities in the United States, Puerto Rico cannot file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, as Detroit recently did. Congress barred the island from doing so with a separate 1984 law.
"Congress has chosen to ignore the crisis going on for 3.5 million American citizens," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), pointing to the past legislation. "Congress has done nothing. Because of this inaction, what used to be a fiscal crisis is now turning into a humanitarian crisis."
"What we really need is help, and what we really need is help from Congress," Miranda said. "This is not a Republican issue, this is not a Democratic issue. What we need is the ability to restructure and get Puerto Rico out of the hole it's in."
Congress has repeatedly promised to deal with the crisis, but has yet to act. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) pledged to take up the debt crisis by the end of this month, but so far has not unveiled a plan.
In the meantime, so-called vulture capitalists have been swooping in to buy Puerto Rican debt from its holders at steep discounts, and insisting that the local government pay back the full original value.
"They specialize in waiting until a borrower like Puerto Rico is in real trouble, and then they buy up the debt for pennies on the dollar, and then squeeze every last drop out of their debtors," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Like Miranda, she said it's time to give back to Puerto Rico its ability to restructure its debt.
Vulture capitalist hedge funds, however, have been lobbying hard to stop any such restructuring, which could drastically cut their profits.
Warren noted that the squeeze in Puerto Rico has meant closing some 150 schools and cutting the budget of Puerto Rico's only children's hospital, as well as infrastructure failures and a decade-long recession.
"It is time for Washington, both Congress and the Obama administration, to help out millions of our fellow Americans who are caught in an economic catastrophe," said Warren. "Let's stand up to the hedge funds, and let's fight for our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico."
Miranda said the fallout was all too apparent in the town of Vega Alta, where his grandfather was a bank manager and his grandmother ran a travel agency.
"The town I grew up, the town I just painted for you -- the bank, the travel agency, the school supply store -- those are all gone," Miranda said. "Vega Alta is a dying town. The only people who live there now are the people who can't afford to leave."
Correction An earlier version of this story said states can declare bankruptcy. They cannot.
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