DC and Puerto Rico Statehood –Top 3 Pros and Cons

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The debate to grant Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico statehood pops up periodically in the news or US Congress. Versions of these debates have been popular since the early 1800s for DC, and since the 1950s for Puerto Rico, though debate over the latter’s autonomy or independence even occurred when the island was under Spanish colonial rule.

The United States has not granted statehood to a jurisdiction since 1959 when Alaska was admitted on Jan. 3 and Hawaii on Aug. 21. [1] [2]

How Would DC or Puerto Rico Become a State?

The Admissions Clause (Article IV, Section 3) of the US Constitution grants Congress the power to create a new state: “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.” [3]

According to the National Constitution Center, the basic process most used for a state to join the Union, and the foundational process used every time since West Virginia joined in 1863, has been for Congress to first make the jurisdiction a US territory, asking for a local constitution that conforms to the US Constitution. Then Congress grants statehood, often requiring the president’s final approval. For many states, Congress has made those steps “a more complicated process,” and required the passage of additional acts or resolutions. [2] [4]

37 states have been added to the United States via Congress and the Admissions Clause after the ratification of the US Constitution, beginning with Vermont in 1791 and ending with Hawaii in 1959. According to Matt Glassman, PhD, Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, “nineteen were the admission of an entire territory, already bounded and recognized as a political community. Ten were the partial admission of a territory. Some territories became a state, and the residual portion of the territory was reorganized as a new community. One state (California) was created out of unorganized federal land. One state was formed from a bounded nation (Texas). And four states (Vermont, Kentucky, Maine, and West Virginia) were created from land legally held by existing states.“ [4] [5]

For more on the history of the individual DC and Puerto Rico statehood debates, click here.

Should Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico Be Granted US Statehood?

Pro 1

DC residents are American citizens who are treated like second-class citizens.

“Since its creation, the District has sometimes been treated like a State. The District is deemed to be a State for the purpose of levying and collecting federal and local taxes, for service in the armed forces, for diversity jurisdiction, and for regulating commerce. But it still remains that, at present, the District is not considered a State for purposes of congressional representation,” explained John S. Baker, Jr., PhD, JD, Visiting Professor at Georgetown Law School and Aderson B. Francois, JD, Professor of Law at Georgetown University. [6]

Moreover, DC has 712,000 residents who are subject to federal taxes, selective service (draft) laws and military service, and the whims of Congressional control over the district’s courts, laws, and budgets. But residents have only non-voting representation in the US House and no representation in the Senate, which means residents have no say in Senate committees, leadership of government agencies, ambassadors, or federal judges. [7]

DC residents pay the highest per-capita federal taxes in the United States, and more total federal income tax than residents of 22 other states. Per the “no taxation without representation” standard set by the US Constitution, DC residents should have the Congressional representation they are denied by not being a state. [7]

Further, Congress holds power over DC via the Home Rule Act of 1973, which means Congress can deny any law DC residents pass. Thus, DC is functionally a state until Congress wants to meddle in laws, such as the congressional blockage of DC’s adult-use marijuana sales law that was passed with overwhelming citizen support (70%) in 2014 but is still being blocked by Congress in 2021. [8] [9] [10]

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Pro 2

Puerto Rico residents are American citizens who are treated like second-class citizens.

While some say that DC residents are treated like “second-class citizens,” frequently Puerto Ricans are treated like foreigners. Only 54% of Americans polled in 2017 knew Puerto Ricans are US citizens. 22% said Puerto Ricans were not citizens and 24% did not know. [11]

Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship in Mar. 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act. However, the 3.1 million residents of the island are often subject to discrimination that stateside citizens are not, such as a now-revoked Georgia Department of Driver Services rule that placed additional requirements on Puerto Ricans applying for drivers’ licenses. As recently as 2017, to obtain a license Puerto Ricans were asked difficult questions including, “What is the name of the frog [the “coqui”] native only to Puerto Rico?” [12] [13] [14]

Like DC, Puerto Rico is also subject to the whims of Congress. As Charles Venator-Santiago, PhD, Political Science Professor at the University of Connecticut, summarized, “Congress has this wide berth to do what it wants to help the island. They’ve chosen to discriminate downward, historically.” [15]

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Pro 3

Denying DC and Puerto Rico statehood is a racist and hypocritical partisan ploy by conservatives to deny voting rights to about 3.8 million voters.

DC has about 712,000 citizens and Puerto Rico about 3.1 million citizens, none of whom have full voting rights because of a lack of representation in Congress. [7] [12]

Most of those voters are black and/or Latino/Hispanic. DC’s population is 46% black and 19.4% other people of color. Admission of DC would make it the second majority nonwhite state after Hawaii. Puerto Rico is 98.7% Latino or Hispanic and 34.8% other people of color. While a majority of Puerto Ricans identify as white, the island’s predominantly Spanish culture makes them easily racialized by those opposing statehood. [16] [17] [18] [19]

Though writing specifically about DC, the following statement by senior Obama speechwriter David Litt applies equally to Puerto Rico: “Withholding statehood… is part of a far more sinister nationwide effort to disenfranchise nonwhite Americans at disproportionate rates. Today, nonwhite Americans are more likely to be purged from voter rolls; more likely to live in gerrymandered ‘vote sinks’ where elections are effectively decided by maps and not voters; more likely to endure horrifically long lines to vote, when they can at all. These efforts to minimize the impact of nonwhite votes, whether motivated by cynical partisanship or explicit white supremacy, are a legacy of the most shameful part of American history. This is the context in which D.C. statehood has been denied for more than a century.” [18]

The Republican argument that adding DC or Puerto Rico is a ploy to unfairly gain more liberal voters is hypocritical and belies how Republicans brought in a number of states. George Derek Musgrove, PhD, History Professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, explained: “Western states that were brought in in the late 19th century — Colorado, the Dakotas — were not only brought in on a party-line vote, but they were brought in specifically with the purpose to pad Republican majorities.” [20]

Republicans sped up Nevada’s admission in 1864 to give President Lincoln an election boost, and lobbied to have the Dakota territory split in two–North and South Dakota–during the 1889 statehood process in order to gain four Republican senators instead of two. Hawaii was granted statehood in order to gain Republican representation after Alaska provided Democrats a boost. [20]

Finally, the 2020 GOP platform (which was a renewal of the 2016 platform) plainly states the Republican party’s support for Puerto Rico statehood. [21]

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Con 1

DC was never intended to be a US state.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the US Constitution states: “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings” [22]

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote of the “indispensable necessity” of the federal government having “complete authority” over the seat of the government, stating the “power [is one] exercised by every legislature of the Union, I might say of the world.” Though writing before DC became the capital, he feared that if the capital were in a state, the residents of that state would have undue power over the federal government. [23] [24]

Making DC a state would require not just a simple act of Congress, but a constitutional amendment (one of which has already failed to be ratified), and the revocation of Amendment 23, which gave DC voting rights in presidential elections and electoral college votes. [25] [26]

Further, the Founding Fathers did not intend for DC to suffer “taxation without representation.” Instead, as explained by Jonathan Turley, JD, Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, the Founders “repeatedly stated that the District would be represented by the entire Congress and that members (as residents or commuters to that District) would bear a special interest in its operations.” [27]

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Con 2

Puerto Rico was never intended to be a US state.

The United States occupied Puerto Rico in 1898, taking the island from the Spanish to ensure a strong military presence in the Caribbean and access to a canal through Panama, not to add a state to the union. [28] [29]

After the US ended military occupation of the island, the Foraker Act, signed on Apr. 12, 1900, by President McKinley, established Puerto Rico as an “unorganized territory.” Though the act did not confer citizenship, several senators, including John C. Spooner (R-WI), believed the legislation gave false promises. Spooner stated, “I am not yet ready, nor are we called upon now, to give that quasi pledge of statehood, or to imply that they will ever reach a condition where it shall be either for their interests, or certainly for ours, to let them be one of the members of this Union.” [30]

In Downes v. Bidwell (1901), the US Supreme Court designated Puerto Rico as a nonincorporated territory, one that does not enjoy the protections of the US Constitution and whose people are not US citizens. [30]

While Puerto Ricans have since been granted citizenship and constitutional protections, the island was never meant to be a US state.

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Con 3

Granting DC or Puerto Rico statehood is a partisan ploy by liberals to unfairly gain more voters for the passage of legislation that the majority of Americans reject and which can’t win approval under existing laws.

78% of Republican voters opposed making DC a state in a 2019 Gallup poll. A percentage explained by Erin Doherty of FiveThirtyEight: “adding a state could change the makeup of Congress. Washington, D.C., is a heavily Democratic city — for example, just 4 percent of its residents voted for President Trump in 2016 — so D.C. statehood would almost certainly give Democrats two more senators and one more seat in the House, all of which could make Republicans less likely to support it.” [31] [32]

Keith Naughton, PhD, Co-Founder of Silent Majority Strategies, argued that granting DC statehood is “bad policy and uses the legitimate grievance of lack of representation by D.C. residents for temporary partisan gain.” As Naugton explained, DC statehood is the “cause celebre of the moment for the activist Left. Stung by their lack of appeal in rural America (exacerbated by their utter unwillingness to try), adding D.C. as a state is their solution. In other words, if the rules don’t work for us, change the rules.” [33]

US Representative James Comer (R-KY) was even more direct about Democrats’ objectives, calling the statehood push a “power grab”: “D.C. statehood is all about Speaker Pelosi and liberal Democrats consolidating their power to enact radical policies nationwide like the Green New Deal, packing the Supreme Court, and eliminating the filibuster. The Democrats’ bill is unconstitutional and no amount of testimony can change that basic fact… H.R. 51 doesn’t rest in sound policy and is a dangerous political power grab that will ensure more government intrusion into Americans’ daily lives.” [34]

Many of the same arguments apply to Puerto Rico, though fewer Republicans (48%) are opposed to its statehood. [35]

Senator Mitch McConnell, who summarized both statehood campaigns as “full-bore socialism,” explained that the House Democrats want to pass laws “that would turn us into a country we would never be… They’re on the way to doing some additional things… the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and by the way… they plan to make the District of Columbia a state that gives two new Democratic senators. [Make] Puerto Rico a state [and] get two more new Democratic senators. And… you’ve surely noticed [their] plan to expand the Supreme Court.” [36]

Liberals can’t be allowed to add states just to gain support for policies that are unsupported by residents of existing US states.

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Washington, DC

The debate over whether to give DC representation in Congress has been raging since 1801 when the district lost voting representation and became the seat of the US federal government with the passage of the District of Columbia Organic Act that year. When the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1963, DC was allowed to vote in the presidential elections, and it was granted Electoral College votes proportional to the population but not more than the least populous state (which has meant 3 votes since 1964). [37] [38] [39]

In 1973, Congress passed the Home Rule Act, which allowed DC to elect a mayor and council to self-govern to some degree, though all legislation and the DC budget must still be approved  (and can be denied) by Congress. [38]

In 1978, a constitutional amendment was proposed that would repeal the 23rd Amendment and would grant DC representation in Congress “as though it were a state,” giving it two senators and a representative. 38 states were needed to ratify the amendment, but only 16 had done so by the expiration date in 1985. [25]

The statehood debate did not pick up steam until 1979 when J. Edward Guinan, a former priest, authored the first statehood initiative. Passed by a majority of DC residents in 1980, the initiative called for a constitutional convention to create a constitution for a “State of New Columbia” that would then be sent to Congress and President Ronald Reagan for approval in 1982 to grant DC statehood. The New Columbia Statehood commission later found no evidence that the request was ever considered by the federal government. [40] [41]

Campaigns, referendums, and bills in both the House and Senate to grant DC statehood have been plentiful since the 1980s, but none have been passed by both houses of Congress. The first House bill failed 277 to 153 in 1993. [42]

On June 26, 2020, the House passed HR 51 to grant DC statehood, though the Senate and the Trump Administration opposed the bill. The bill was passed by the House a second time on Apr. 22, 2021, with a vote of 216-208. Both bills were sponsored by DC’s nonvoting delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, JD. The Biden Administration signaled support of the bill on Apr. 20, 2021, but the bill faced hard odds in the Senate where it needed 60 votes to overcome the filibuster. Nevertheless, the Senate signaled a hearing would be held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee beginning on June 22, 2021. The bill, if passed, would shrink Washington, DC, to include the White House, National Mall, monuments, and other federal buildings, leaving the rest of the city to become the 51st state called “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth” (a nod to Frederick Douglass). [42] [43] [44] [45] [46]

An Apr. 21, 2021, a Morning Consult/Ipsos poll found 40% of citizens in the country supported DC statehood, 32% were opposed, and 28% didn’t know or had no opinion. Support was mostly found among Democrats (62%), liberals (65%), black people (60%), and those who live in urban areas (57%). Opposition was mostly found among Republicans (59%), conservatives (61%), whites (36%), and those who live in rural areas (41%). [47]

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s official name is the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico in Spanish, and is home to about 3.1 million people. The island is described as a “freely associated state” by its Spanish name. However, Puerto Rico is officially an unincorporated territory or commonwealth of the United States per the Puerto Rico Commonwealth Bill signed by President Truman in 1950. [12] [29]

Puerto Rico was acquired by the United States–along with Cuba, the Philippines, and other territories–from Spain after the 1898 Spanish-American War. Prior to the war, Puerto Rico had been planning to implement an autonomous government under Spain. The US wanted Puerto Rico specifically to build a strong naval military presence in the Caribbean (which continues to this day), and to ease access to the then in-progress Panama Canal (which would be completed in 1914). [28] [29]

Puerto Ricans are US citizens by birth. They cannot, however, vote in US presidential elections, and may only elect a resident commissioner to the US House of Representatives (who may vote in committees only). While Puerto Ricans who reside full-time on the island and are employed only by an employer in Puerto Rico do not have to pay federal income taxes, those who live only part-time on the island and/or work for US off-island or international employers (including the US military) do have to pay federal income taxes. Residents also pay other federal taxes such as Social Security and Medicare. The Puerto Rican government is structured like that of the US with an executive branch consisting of a democratically elected governor, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch. Puerto Ricans may change their constitution as long as there are no conflicts with the US Constitution. The judicial branch is overseen by a US district court, and cases may be appealed to the US Supreme Court. [29] [48]

Though Puerto Ricans have striven for autonomy since under Spanish colonial rule, the statehood debate took shape when Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as states in 1959. A commission appointed by the Congress concluded three options were available for Puerto Rico: commonwealth, statehood, or independence. The entire island population was to vote on the options in July 1967. The Popular Democratic Party (Partido Popular Democrático) supported the vote, but it was boycotted by both the statehood and independence parties, skewing the results: 60.4% supported commonwealth status; 38.9% statehood; and 0.6% independence. [29]

Five other island-wide votes were held between 1993 and 2020. Most Puerto Ricans participated in the Nov. 1993 vote: 48.6% supported commonwealth status, 46.3% statehood, and 4% independence.  A third vote in Dec. 1998 added a “none of the above” option and resulted in 50.3% selecting “none of the above,” 46.6% statehood, and 2.5% independence. [29] [49]

A Nov. 2012 vote found that about 54% of Puerto Ricans were not satisfied with territorial status. In that vote, 61% indicated statehood was their preferred option. However, the wording of the question did not offer a non-statehood option resulting in the question being left blank by many voters. In June 2017, only 23% of Puerto Rican voters cast ballots, with 97% favoring statehood. Puerto Ricans voted a sixth time in Nov. 2020 but only for or against statehood (commonwealth and/or independence options were not provided). 52% favored statehood, while 47% were against it. [49] [50]

A July 2019 Gallup poll found 66% of Americans favored Puerto Rican statehood, support that has been consistent since the 1960s. 27% opposed statehood and 7% had no opinion in the 2019 poll. [35]

Other Inhabited Unincorporated US Territories

The United States has four other inhabited unincorporated territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands. Like Puerto Rico, residents of the islands cannot vote in presidential elections (with a few small exceptions), and do not have a voting representative in Congress, but instead each has a delegate who can only vote in committees. US federal taxation also works like the system in Puerto Rico with island-only residents and employees not paying US federal income taxes. American Samoa is the only one of the five territories in which residents are not US citizens by birth but are instead classified as US nationals. [51] [52] [53]

The populations of these island territories are arguably so small that the statehood debate is difficult to apply. The CIA World Factbook estimates the population of American Samoa to be 46,366. About 168,801 people live on Guam, 51,659 on the Northern Mariana Islands, and 105,870 on the US Virgin Islands. Collectively, the island populations are slightly smaller than that of Cleveland, Ohio. [54] [55] [56] [57] [58] [59]

When considering the statehood debate for DC and Puerto Rico, also thinking about the roughly 372,696 people living in other US territories in similar situations might be fruitful.

Discussion Questions

1. Should Washington, DC, be granted statehood? Should Puerto Rico be granted statehood? Why or why not? 

2. What other policies could mitigate the problems seen by proponents of statehood? Explain your answer(s).

3. Should any or all of the other US territories be granted statehood? Why or why not? What other measures might be considered, if any, to resolve the lack of representation in Congress, citizenship, and other concerns?

Take Action

1. Consider the DC government’s page promoting statehood.

2. Explore the PR51st campaign arguments for Puerto Rico statehood..

3. Analyze the Senate Republican Policy Committee’s arguments against DC statehood.

4. Consider Diego Panzardi Serra’s arguments against Puerto Rico statehood.

5. Explore arguments about granting statehood to the other US territories at Northern Virginia Daily, Foreign Policy, Open Democracy, and The Hill.

6. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.

7. Push for the position and policies you support by writing US national senators and representatives.

Sources

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