Puerto Rico Statehood and the Balance of Power

The 2018 midterm elections put Democrats in the majority in the House and Republicans in the majority in the Senate. Some people believe that the new House will be more likely to vote for statehood for Puerto Rico than the current Congress.

Statehood for Puerto Rico is part of the Republican Party platform, and statehood is a bipartisan issue. The territory’s delegation is firmly bipartisan. Puerto Rico’s governor has declared Puerto Rico a purple state. Puerto Rican voters helped elect Republicans in Florida. None of these facts keep people from believing that the Republican Congress has been slowing down Puerto Rico’s progress toward statehood. 

This persistent belief is connected with another false belief: that Puerto Rico, which would be a Democratic state, must be admitted with a Republican state.

The Balance of Power

The balance of power in Congress between Republicans and Democrats is important to U.S. politics, but that’s not the balance of power associated with statehood.

That balance of power was a balance between states that allowed slavery and states that did not. The first 13 states, the English colonies that became the new United States of America, were about half slave states and half states where slavery was illegal. When Vermont came in as the 14th state, the states were evenly divided on the question.

The idea was that since the United States couldn’t come to a consensus on slavery, keeping the states in equal numbers would prevent either side from becoming powerful enough to impose its ideas on the other states.

Congress decided to try to make sure that new states came into the Union in fairly equal numbers.It was like making sure that you invite supporters of both teams to your Super Bowl party to keep everyone comfortable. Except that slavery was a more important issue than Super Bowl allegiance.

How did that work out?

Obviously, it didn’t work out well at all. The question of slavery became more contentious as time went on, and eventually a Civil War decided the question.

By the time the Civil War was visible on the horizon, there were official agreements that slave states and free states had to join as pairs.

The Civil War came anyway, and the slavery question was settled.

By the end of the Civil War, Congress was guessing which territories would go Republican and which Democrat. They were admitting states shortly before presidential elections in order to keep or get presidents of a particular party.

The political parties at that time were divided on the question of slavery, with the Democratic Party supporting it and the Republican Party, the party of Reconstruction, opposing it.

Naturally, the Balance of Power issue began to get mixed up in people’s minds with the two major political parties.

After the Civil War

States admitted after the Civil War ended came in ones, twos, and fours. There were new states a year apart, three years apart, six years apart… it didn’t matter.

In 1912, New Mexico and Arizona considered joining together as a single state. Arizona refused, and the two states were admitted separately in 1912. At this point, New Mexico is a blue state and Arizona is red. This was the first time the idea of states joining the Union in red/blue pairs shows up.

The next state to join was Alaska. It was expected to be a blue state, though it is now firmly red. Hawaii was then considered a red state, though it also flipped. The two were admitted in the same year.

People had it in their minds that red and blue states needed to be admitted together to maintain the balance of power between the Democratic and Republican parties.

Would admitting states in pairs keep Congress purple?

No. The Senate has two representatives from each state, so admitting states in red/blue pairs and making them promise to stay that way could in theory keep the Senate even.

But that’s not how it works. People vote for their senators as individuals, and the Senate doesn’t stay even.

In the House, each state has a certain number of members based on the population of the state. State populations change, just as voting patterns do. Even if it were possible to predict a state’s delegates for a few years after that state’s admission, it would not be possible to predict the number or party of the congresspeople a century on.

Check out the history of the U.S. Congress and you’ll see that there has never yet been a Congress divided evenly between two parties. The website also points out that the proportions sometimes  change because of a death or a congressperson’s change of party.

The takeaway

The idea of a Balance of Power between the two parties that has to be preserved is unrealistic. The idea that it has something to do with statehood is a common confusion over a 19th century idea.

There is no way to even Republicans and Democratic numbers in Congress by making Puerto Rico wait for another territory to be ready for statehood. Let’s just admit that this idea is a confused, and indeed a false idea.

The time for statehood for Puerto Rico is now. The lame duck Congress should seize the moment so they can have this as their legacy. If they don’t, then we’ll see whether a Democratic House will take the plunge. Either way, it’s the right thing to do.

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