Sometimes people speak rather bitterly about the fact that President Obama didn’t admit Puerto Rico as a state, or express anger that President Biden hasn’t done so. But can a president admit a state?
Only Congress can admit new states
The people in a territory must organize a republican form of government. Then Congress must admit the state into the Union. This is part of the Constitution: specifically, the New States Clause, which says, “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union.”
This is Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1. It goes on to describe what happens when a potential new state is part of another state, but it is very clear in its basic statement. Congress makes new states, not the president.
Congress includes the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The president can veto
Two presidents have vetoed state admission bills. In 1911, President Taft vetoed the admission bill for Arizona. President Johnson vetoed the admission bills for Colorado and Nebraska in 1867. Congress overruled the veto on Nebraska. Colorado and Arizona had to wait for a new president and try again.
In these cases, the presidents did not have the power to admit the new states, but they did have the power to refuse to admit them. All three states were eventually admitted.
In fact, Congress has never refused statehood to any territory that has requested admission to the United States. Only these two presidents have refused statehood.
The president has influence
The president can express an opinion about statehood. Several presidents, including President Reagan, President Ford, and President Bush as well as President Biden, have recommended making Puerto Rico a state. Congress has not taken action in any of these cases.
President Biden has spoken publicly in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico. He specifically said that he would sign the Puerto Rico Status Act when it reaches his desk.
However the president cannot force Congress to take action and cannot admit a state with an executive order. It is only Congress that has the power to admit a new state.
What about Puerto Rico?
Puerto Rico has no senators and only one, non-voting member of the House of Representatives. Because of this limited voice in American democracy, Puerto Rico needs the help of people living in the states. If you live in a state, you can educate your representatives on the importance of statehood for Puerto Rico. Statehood will provide equal rights for the U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico. This should be important to all Americans. Please reach out to your legislators!
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