Excited by the prospect of adding two new senators and seven new representatives to Congress, all of them Democrats?
That’s exactly what will happen if Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state. A surprising number of Republican congressmen — and the White House — think it’s a good idea. What’s more, they want to make this happen against the wishes of the majority of Puerto Rican people.
Since Eisenhower conferred commonwealth status on the territory in 1952, the Puerto Rican people have voted four times to reject pursuing statehood, including once in 1993 and again in 1998.
But H.R. 900, a new bill working its way through the House (it’s scheduled for mark-up on Tuesday), would force another vote on the statehood issue in Puerto Rico. However, the way the bill is written, the referendum would be structured in such a way that it would stack the deck against Puerto Ricans who wish to vote to maintain their existing commonwealth status.
There are three factions in Puerto Rico, in order of popularity: those that favor maintaining the status quo commonwealth status, those that favor pursuing statehood, and those that favor independence. In recent decades, surveys have shown consistently that around half or just under half of Puerto Ricans prefer preserving the island’s current relationship with the United States. Support for statehood tops out at around 46 percent, with the remainder favoring independence.
In the 1993 plebiscite on the island, 48.6 percent of voters favored existing commonwealth status, while 46.3 favored statehood. A 1998 plebiscite on the matter had statehood grabbing an almost identical 46.5 percent of the vote.
Statehood lost these referendums despite some powerful political backing. In 1993, the party in favor of statehood had recently won an electoral landslide. A sizable majority in the island’s house, senate, and the governor were all in favor of statehood.
“So even though the statehood party had all this strength and all these resources, statehood lost,” according to Eduardo Bhatia Gautier, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. Bhatia officially represents Puerto Rican Governor Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá in Washington, D.C.
Bhatia and Gov. Acevedo-Vilá do not support the statehood cause, and are upset by what they call the manipulative tactics used by pro-statehood forces.
Statehood supporters forced another referendum in 1998, only this time they used a new tactic. Voters were given four options for determining the island’s status with all four choices defined by pro-statehood forces. Naturally, this excluded altogether the choice of maintaining the status quo. Only by judicial requirement was a fifth option — “None of the above” — added. “None of the above” garnered over 50 percent of the vote, and the status quo was preserved. Even this vote didn’t stop statehood forces.
“The lesson for the statehood supporters in Puerto Rico was that statehood will never come requested by the people of Puerto Rico,” Bhatia tells National Review Online. “The statehood lobby got really involved in what I consider to be a shift in strategy. The strategy became if the people of Puerto Rico are not going to ask for statehood then why don’t we get Washington to limit the options of the people of Puerto Rico. That will force statehood on the people of Puerto Rico.”
And forcing statehood on the people of Puerto Rico seems to be exactly what H.R. 900 is designed to do. Instead of one up or down vote on Puerto Rican statehood, the bill’s “federally sanctioned self-determination process for the people of Puerto Rico” would require two votes.
The first vote would not be a straight up or down vote on statehood, as in the past. Instead, the vote would be a direct vote on the commonwealth status. The thinking is that statehood forces and independence supporters would both vote against the status quo. If the choice of the largest plurality (and nearly a majority) of citizens is not part of a three-way vote, but is pitted against the two other factions bundled together as one choice — it might be edged out at the ballot box.
“So what will happen on that first vote is that you will get 46 percent from the statehood, 5 percent from the independence side. You will get 51 percent. You knock off the table the plurality which is 49 percent [in favor of commonwealth],” Bhatia says.
This would then force a second vote — with the only remaining choices being statehood and independence. Given just these two options, statehood would likely win by a landslide.
But that’s not all. “The bill is so absurd that it says that if commonwealth loses there should be a vote every eight years,” Bhatia notes.
Aside from permanently upsetting the balance of power in the U.S. Congress (“I can guarantee that they will all be Democrats — that I can tell you right now,” Bhatia says), there are other potential problems with making Puerto Rico a full-fledged state.
For one thing, America would become officially bilingual overnight. “There hasn’t been a Spanish-speaking state,” Bhatia says. “There a lot of issues involved, and there is a lot of nationalism in Puerto Rico. There will be resistance. At a minimum it will be the same resistance Quebec has, and at a maximum it could be greater.”
The other problems are largely economic. The drive for congressional representation for Puerto Rico is largely based on getting federal revenue for Puerto Rico, which is likely to be a huge drain. “The reality is that close to 45 percent of the families in Puerto Rico or 1 million families live under the poverty level according to the U.S. census,” Bhatia observed. “So you have twice the poverty level of Mississippi, the poorest state in the union. Puerto Rico could become the greatest welfare state in the nation. ”
At the same time, statehood would deprive Puerto Rico of its comparative economic advantage.
“There’s not a single economist anywhere in the world that says what Puerto Rico needs to create jobs and get people out of poverty is more federal taxes. Puerto Rico can attract business that are going offshore because it has a different tax structure than the United States — companies in Puerto Rico that create jobs do not have to pay federal taxes,” Bhatia says. “Puerto Rico’s economic model depends a lot on making sure that the tax regime of the United States doesn’t apply.”
Yet despite these obvious problems, Puerto Rican statehood enjoys a great deal of Republican support. In December 2005, working with Puerto Rico’s non-voting congressional representative and statehood supporter Luis Fortuño, the Bush Administration produced “The White House Task Force Report on Puerto Rico.” In recommending Congress set another new voting procedure for the island, task force member and deputy assistant Attorney General Kevin Marshall, said that the voters “had not spoken clearly” about Puerto Rico’s status in previous referendums — despite four votes with the same result.
In February 2006, the “Task Force Report on Puerto Rico” was roundly condemned in a New York Times op-ed by none other than Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former ambassador to the United Nations. Kirkpatrick declared the report was “on a path to stir up problems where none existed.”
Fortuño has continued his efforts toward statehood by helping introduce H.R. 900 in April and lobbying hard for the bill since then. Fortuño is aligned with the GOP in Congress, and 55 of the bill’s 129 co-sponsors are Republican.
NRO contacted the offices of several of the Republican co-sponsors to ask them why they supported the bill. No one offered an explanation for their support of the legislation.
Bhatia thinks Republican support amounts to an electoral gambit. “I think somehow they got the wrong message — that by supporting statehood for Puerto Rico they’re going to get the blessing of Hispanics or Puerto Rican Hispanics and that is absolutely wrong,” he says. “There are about 500,000 Puerto Ricans who have moved into Florida over the last 12 years. They have a right to vote and they have not actively participated in the last two elections for whatever reason, and I think [Republicans] are trying to court them.”
An October 2004 poll conducted in central Florida by Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Dia newspaper shows the views of mainland Puerto Ricans don’t differ significantly from their island counterparts. According to the poll, 48 percent of Puerto Ricans in central Florida support commonwealth status, 42 percent support statehood and 5 percent support independence.
In the meantime, opponents of statehood are offering up an alternative to help settle the question once again. Sponsored by Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a Puerto Rican Democrat representing New York, H.R. 1230 would call a constitutional convention in the territory to address statehood. Currently, the bill only has 48 co-sponsors.
The governor of Puerto Rico obviously favors this approach. “We’re happy to hold that convention,” Bhatia says. “Everybody should agree on the process and then come with one voice to the Congress.”
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.