“Tennessee Plan” Fictions and Realities

Correcting Disinformation

A misleading comparison of “Tennessee Plan” tactics by Puerto Rico and Washington DC appeared in recent articles by Jose Delgado in El Nuevo Dia and Phillipe Schoene Roura in Caribbean Business.

The statehood admission political strategy known as the “Tennessee Plan” simply refers to a U.S. territory that takes the initiative to begin acting like a state to the greatest extent possible until admitted to the union by Congress. It is an expression of political will by U.S. citizens in a territory organized under Article IV of the U.S. Constitution to take affirmative action rather than passively accepting indefinite territorial status until it pleases Congress to act.

Of the six “Tennessee Plan” territories that became states, each adapted its strategy to its own agenda of local and federal legal and political equities. Accordingly, the elements of the Puerto Rico “Tennessee Plan” as it moves forward through each phase of increasingly state-like self-government are based on Puerto Rico’s unique circumstances. That includes not one but two orderly, legitimate, lawful and duly certified status votes, in which all other legally valid options were rejected and statehood was approved by majority rule.

To suggest that Puerto Rico must conform to other “Tennessee Plan” models employed by other territories that became states, much less the tactics employed by Washington DC, is simply historically, politically and legally wrong. Similarly, comparing Puerto Rico’s strategy to Washington DC’s is a diversionary tactic that under values Puerto Rico’s own unique history and heritage as a territory organized under federal territorial law and eligible for statehood.

Unlike DC, the U.S. Congress has recognized and in fact ratified the local constitutional mechanisms in the territory that have been employed by Puerto Rico to duly constitute its own “Tennessee Plan” delegation. That duly-constituted delegation now represents the territory in Washington.

Washington DC and Puerto Rico Statehood Not Linked

The El Nuevo Dia article by Jose Delgado played on fears that Puerto Rico statehood could fail if DC statehood fails. That was an example of the press playing bad cop and forecasting defeat to deflate the morale of the statehood majority in Puerto Rico. It was calculated to rattle and thereby capture the attention of the statehood majority by linking Puerto Rico and DC statehood.

Delgado then played good cop and finally showed his actual colors in a follow up article entitled “DC Wants to Join PR in Statehood Campaign.” In that second article, Delgado suddenly casts himself as the match-maker arranging a marriage between the Puerto Rico and DC statehood movements.

What we have here is a reporter not just covering a story but preying on fear of failure only to then pander to desires for success, in order to roll out and promote a DC/PR statehood alliance as the grand solution. Unfortunately, political collusion to attain tandem admission of both DC and Puerto Rico as states presents more problems than it could ever solve.

Both DC and Puerto Rico would be wise not to impulsively follow this Pied Piper masquerading as a journalist without a reality check. The fact that the article admits the alliance may not work until some future time when political party control in Washington changes in favor of DC statehood should be a red flag for Puerto Rico statehood supporters to proceed with extreme caution.

To begin with, the practice of tandem admissions derives from the pre-Civil War political necessity of preserving the balance between free and slave states. After the Civil War, preserving political control for the majority party in Congress and/or the Electoral College through tandem admissions persisted until 1959.

Tandem admissions to preserve majority party control proved fallible after Democrat Alaska went Republican and Republican Hawaii went Democrat following admission. The partisan flip-flop in Alaska and Hawaii ended up being a wash because both parties got one new state, but if only one of the two new states had flipped one party would have gained an unintended advantage.

That episode illustrated that preservation of short term majority party control in Congress and/or the Electoral College was highly overrated. As such it has diminished importance as a statehood admission criterion.

When as now the majority party has a narrow numerical advantage, partisan control still may well delay the timing for admission to take effect. That can be mitigated by enacting an admission date that is over the horizon of two or more federal election cycles. At some point equal civil rights for citizens and government by consent has to be given priority over political party future election hopes.

These and other factors suggest if not require de-linkage of DC and Puerto Rico political status questions. While it is legally possible for DC to be made a state if Congress so chooses, both DC and Puerto Rico would be adopting an obsolete and high risk strategy by creating any current direct linkage promoting tandem admission.

Neither Puerto Rico nor DC should take the bait, cast into murky political waters by Delgado to stir up political turbulence to sell newspapers and increase advertising revenues. Unless there is a major sea change DC and Puerto Rico should observe a policy of respectful arms-length de-linkage on the question of their respective future political status aspirations.

Both DC and Puerto Rico may find common supporters of statehood in Congress. Still, unless and until the political benefit of linkage is proven, avoiding an increase in the number of new common opponents should be given a higher priority.

Cocktail party civility and encounters in the corridors of official Washington enable notes to be compared informally. High profile collaboration creates perceived linkage risks attracting a larger united opposition to both statehood bids, without regard for the merits of either.

More on Puerto Rico, DC and the Tennessee Plan:

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