By Howard Hills
The not so good news
Rep. Raul Grijalva, the Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, seems to be a man with a big heart. After visiting Puerto Rico he was reported to say he could feel how the people of the island want and are ready for a change to come, for a century of partial but not full citizenship to end and fully equality under statehood to begin.
In talking with leaders and average people who told him the majority now clearly want equal rights and duties of statehood, he spoke compassionately of the aspiration for statehood. Not just as an abstraction in the future once Puerto Rico has solved all of its economic and political problems, but as the political status model through which our fellow American citizens in Puerto Rico can solve their political economic problems. Just as the citizens of 32 territories that became states did, and as Americans continue to do in the 50 states.
Grijalva promised to begin a new discussion in Congress on the future “political status” as soon as that is politically timely in Washington. In that context, seeming to step back from the question of statehood, Grijalva’s tone changed as he acknowledged political realities. Even as support for statehood in Congress appears to be growing, there are both Democrats and Republicans on his committee and in the House who still do not support or at a minimum do not believe the time is right for a debate on statehood for Puerto Rico.
Not surprisingly, as a political realist who has to devote himself to the art of the possible in Congress, Grijalva candidly told the public and press in Puerto Rico his short term priority is for his committee to provide oversight on federal and local administration of funds for hurricane recovery and restoration of fiscal order in the local territorial government’s finances and budget process, currently supervised by a controversial federal financial control board.
Amid reports that U.S. Senate Majority Leader and President Trump do not think it is the right time to address Puerto Rico’s political status question, Grijalva summarized his take away from his visits with people in Puerto Rico by urging realistic expectations, especially in the short term, reportedly even suggesting early action in Washington on statehood would be “a miracle of miracles.”
The really good news
The miracle already happened in Philadelphia back in 1787. The more perfect union created under the Constitution is based on the principle that just government exists only by consent of the governed, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
Article I and Article II of the Constitution purposely and necessarily limit government by consent to U.S. citizens who are citizens of a state. Only citizens of a state can vote in federal elections for full and equal representation in Congress and the Electoral College.
This is not an accident or mistake. The allocation of political power to the states based on equal representation for each state combined with population based representation is intended to prevent a bloc of states from controlling a fixed and permanent political order. Instead, large, medium and small states can participate in constantly changing and realigning alliances on multiple issues of national and regional importance.
The more perfect union created under the Constitution is a federation of states with equal sovereignty and equal power of consent. Without state sovereignty under the 10th Amendment and limitation of voting rights to citizens in a state the union would break up within a decade. The more perfect union under the Constitution is not a federation of states and territories, or a confederation of people with U.S. national citizenship who elect leaders and make national laws based on national majority vote.
The miracle is inevitable
The only way for U.S. citizens to have equal rights of national citizenship is to have state citizenship. That is why the U.S. Congress should not have embraced the political outcome allowed by the Supreme Court ruling in the 1922 case of Balzac v. Puerto Rico, in which the court ruled that Congress can govern citizens in Puerto Rico the same way it governed non-citizens in Puerto Rico before Congress granted birthright U.S. citizenship in 1917.
Congress could and should have accepted that legal ruling as the law of the land, but rejected the political policy it seemed to permit and promote as a permanent outcome. Under the Balzac ruling, even though Puerto Rico was to remain within the borders of the U.S. the only present or future solution for U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico who want equal rights was to relocate their families and abandon their homelands and way of life to move to a state.
Congress should have recognized that legal precedent orchestrated and authored by Chief Justice Taft based on his personal disagreement with permanent union and the promise of statehood for Hawaii and Alaska, was and remains politically and even constitutionally unsustainable. American citizens in Puerto Rico should have been treated like the peoples of all U.S citizen populated territories had been treated from 1787 to 1922.
Americans in Puerto Rico should have had the status citizens had under the Northwest Ordinance and all federal court rulings interpreting the Constitution as it applied to U.S. citizens in the territories before the 1922 Balzac ruling. Instead Congress relied on Balzac in granting statutory citizenship in territories classified by the court as unincorporated, even though the U.S. Supreme Court cases inventing the status of unincorporated territory applied only to territories with non-citizen populations.
Congress can and will do its duty
The miracle is that the solution for Puerto Rico is in the hands of Congress. The “commonwealth” regime of “autonomy” has failed, collapsed, and will never recover politically even as Puerto Rico recovers economically. A simple majority in both Houses is all it takes for the miracle of Philadelphia to become reality in Puerto Rico as it has for 32 territories that became states. Puerto Rico is more ready for statehood and integrated into the nation than any of the 32 territories that became states.
Statehood for Puerto Rico is part of the miracle of America. What is not American is denial of statehood to a U.S. citizen population that is ready for it, and needs equal rights to prosper and compete and develop under the statehood model of equal footing with Americans in the states.
The lesson of history is that unless the people of PR vote to rescind approval of statehood in 2012, or a majority do not vote for statehood in a future referendum, then statehood for PR is inevitable. What more proof of this is needed than the collapse of the “commonwealth” regime of territorial government?
Those who thought “autonomy” was the best of both worlds, better than equality, or even a substitute for government by consent, are now living the reality of the worst of both worlds, denied sovereignty and democracy that come with nationhood, and denied prosperity and freedom and equality or goths and opportunity that come only with statehood.
Congress eventually must offer Puerto Rico terms for statehood, or end the supremacy of federal law and offer only separate sovereignty, nationality and citizenship under its own national constitution as an alternative to the stats quo.
Howard Hills was lead counsel of territorial status in the Executive Office of the President, National Security Council and State Department. He is author of the book “Citizens Without A State” with foreword by former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh.