Commonwealths are territories in free association with the United States, enjoying virtual autonomy in internal affairs but subject to the United States in foreign and defense matters. Citizens of commonwealths are citizens of the United States: they pay federal taxes and may move freely to, from, and within the United States. Public officials are elected by the people of the commonwealths and neither the officials nor their acts require approval by the President or Congress. Constitutional limitations on state legislation are applicable to commonwealth legislation; and appeal lies from the highest court of a commonwealth to the Supreme Court of the United States. When Congress established commonwealth status for the Philippines in 1934 it intended an interim state en route to independence, but commonwealth status has become a practically permanent condition for puerto rico and the Northern Marianas.
The basis of the commonwealth relationship is a "covenant" between the American people and the people of the territory. Since Congress's authority to ratify the covenant derives from its plenary power over territories (Article IV, section 3, clause 2), most legal authorities maintain that Congress could repeal the covenant and impose direct rule. But any attempt to do so would constitute a grievous breach of faith and would excite overwhelming domestic and international political opposition.
Dennis J. Mahoney