An essay in the Columbia Political Review points out that HR 1522, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act, respects the democratically expressed will of the majority of Puerto Rico voters, as shown in the status votes of 2012, 2017, and 2020. The author calls for immediate admission of Puerto Rico as the 51st state of the Union.
He also calls for members of Congress to set aside their partisan differences on the question, pointing out that the supporters of HR 1522 range from liberal democrats to conservative Republicans.
It is crucial for any Puerto Rican statehood bill to appeal to Republican members of Congress because party leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have voiced extreme opposition to admitting the territory into the U.S. In fact, the 2016 GOP platform states: “We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state. We further recognize the historic significance of the 2012 local referendum in which a 54 percent majority voted to end Puerto Rico’s current status as a U.S. territory, and 61 percent chose statehood over options for sovereign nationhood.” Furthermore, the platform is grounded in the GOP’s strict interpretation of the Constitution—namely, the New States Clause (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1) which enforces the equal footing doctrine, which states that territories seeking statehood must be admitted without any additional conditions made by Congress. Since the Colón-Soto bill does not add any additional conditions for Puerto Rico to become a state and respects the limited powers the Constitution bestows on Congress, Republicans are more likely to support this bill over the Velázquez-Menendez bill.
We knew that the Republican Party platform explicitly supports statehood, but we did not realize that it rested on the New States Clause. So we looked into it further.
What’s the New States Clause?
The New States Clause explains how states are formed:
Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1:
New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.
Why is it called the New States Clause? The most obvious answer is that it is about how Congress can admit new states. But the Supreme Court has made decisions that include an interpretation of this clause that includes the rights of new states.
First, there is the Doctrine of Equal Footing. This is the understanding that new states are equal to the existing states. For example, the Supreme Court said that Alabama’s rights over its rivers when it was admitted could not be less than the rights of existing states over their rivers.
Then there is the question of what conditions Congress can place on new states.
Congress has often made requirements for admission of specific states. For example, Utah had to change its laws to forbid polygamy before it could become a state. However, the Supreme Court won’t allow Congress to make conditions that it could not make for a state.
For example, Oklahoma’s admissions act required the new state not to move its capital. The Supreme Court struck down that requirement. Because of the 10th Amendment, Congress can’t tell a state where to put its capital. Therefore, Congress couldn’t make that a condition for admission.
How does this affect Puerto Rico?
Puerto Rico has already met the normal conditions for admission: its constitution has been approved by Congress and it has a large enough population (larger than almost half of the current states, in fact).
Congress could make requirements for admission for Puerto Rico, but they can’t be requirements that Congress could not impose on a state. For example, Congress can’t require Puerto Rico to use English for all school instruction, or to pay off all its debts before admission.
Congress also can’t require more than a simple majority of voters to choose statehood. Some members of Congress want 100% consensus on Puerto Rico’s status before Puerto Rico can be admitted as a state. This is not realistic, and it would be unconstitutional to require it. No state can be forced to jump through extra hoops in its elections, so the new state of Puerto Rico can’t be given that requirement as a condition of admission.