By Howard Hills
Puerto Rico statehood enjoys strong bipartisan support in both houses of Congress and the White House under Presidents of both parties. Both parties will be competitive and benefit politically from having been supportive of statehood now before Puerto Rico becomes a state. Still, in both parties there are voices favoring the status quo, supporting independence and opposing statehood. This article considers positions taken by a commentator questioning Republican Party platform support of Puerto Rico statehood, based on political linkage to statehood for Washington D.C. that has no basis in law or historical precedent.
Republicans have made significant gains among 6 million U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico with high voter turnout in key swing states. Yet, some low-information conservatives are sounding retreat from competing with Democrats in that critical demographic. If Republicans were to capitulate it also could mean surrendering and abandoning over 3 million potential GOP voters when – as now seems likely – the century-old U.S. territory of Puerto Rico finally becomes our 51st state.
GOP rejects linkage of Puerto Rico’s future to Washington D.C.
When was the last time Washington D.C. elected a Republican Mayor, a Republican Delegate in the House of Representatives, or a Republican majority on the D.C. Council? Never.
In contrast, voters among the 3 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico have elected prominent Republicans who served as highly successful Governors, both Houses of the Legislature have had Republican majorities, and at times a majority of mayors have been Republicans.
It was Republican voters who delivered G.H.W. Bush the 1980 win in Puerto Rico’s GOP primary, convincing Ronald Reagan that Bush would be a good running mate. Both Reagan and Bush supported statehood for the territory. Puerto Rican voters in Florida and other swing states were crucial winning the White House for George W. Bush twenty years later.
In 2018 Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and U.S. Senator Rick Scott both thanked Puerto Rican voters as indispensable in their respective election victories in that pivotal swing state. Majority rule in Florida with crucial Puerto Rican voter support in all probability could decide the outcome of the 2020 election.
Accordingly, it disappoints critically thinking readers of any partisan affiliation that the normally credible website townhall.com failed to fact-check much less reality-check a recent commentary advocating Republican Party self-inflicted estrangement from 9 million ethnic Puerto Ricans in America. The editorial advises Republican leaders to write off voters representing 3.2 million U.S. citizens in the American island territory by rejecting the island’s majority votes for statehood, thereby alienating another 6 million Puerto Rican voters in the states.
That advice ignores a proven record demonstrating a pronounced capability by ethnic Puerto Rican voters in every state to be GOP-friendly in local and national elections. GOP political suicide among 9 million Puerto Ricans is espoused in townhall.com by badly misinformed conservative pundit Justin Haskins, who declares Republicans are doomed among 9 million Puerto Rican voters nationwide.
That irrational fatalism is contrived to demoralize low-information conservatives, based on the provable fallacy Republicans are as endangered among Puerto Rican voters in the states and Puerto Rico as the GOP is among Washington D.C. voters – where Democrats enjoy a virtual political monopoly.
Based on that fatally flawed premise, Haskins creates an utterly false linkage riddled with factual and legal errors between Puerto Rico statehood and the prospects for D.C. statehood. “Democrats’ Plan to Steal Senate in 2021: Create New States” (townhall.com, Mar. 8) also advances the even more flawed premise that there is nothing the GOP can do to prevent Puerto Rico from becoming a Democratic Party fiefdom and perpetual blue state if admitted to the Union.
That self-defeating conclusion about Puerto Rico is as wrong as Haskins is right that – at least for the foreseeable future – if ever admitted as a state Washington D.C. invariably would send two far left liberal socialist Democrats to the U.S. Senate. That is all the more reason for Republicans to lead and deliver on statehood for Puerto Rico which is a battle that can and will be won.
Choosing the self-fulfilling prophecy you want
Republicans need to recognize statehood for D.C. would be historically and constitutionally unprecedented, but in contrast there is no political precedent for Puerto Rico to be denied statehood. Thus, making D.C. statehood credible is a burden Democrats must bear, but statehood for Puerto Rico is a political opportunity for Republicans who lead and make it happen sooner rather than later.
Republicans miss the opportunity to lead in admission of Puerto Rico at their own peril. Embracing the Haskins misconception Puerto Rico will be a blue state like D.C. would be a historic blunder by Republicans, one that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Of course, anti-statehood factions in all 32 territories that eventually became states used the same tactics we are seeing now to make projected partisan control of Congress the singular defining issue. That’s been true whenever any territory reached the point of no return on the road to statehood.
Puerto Rico reached that point 70 years ago, and should have become a state in the decade after WWII like U.S. citizen populated territories of Alaska and Hawaii, or a sovereign nation like the Philippine Islands territory where Congress never granted U.S. citizenship. In that historical context, the attempt to create partisan-driven political linkage between the future of Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. is cynically opportunistic.
Opposing statehood for pluralistic Puerto Rico now because Washington D.C. is too monolithically liberal is a bad idea emanating from constitutional, historical and political illiteracy. It asserts the antithesis of a principled conservative value driven strategic political paradigm based on equal rights of representation in a constitutional republic.
Deconstructing fallacy linking Puerto Rico and D.C.
Haskins is so wrong on so many points that instead of constructing a counter argument the most logical rebuttal is to take inventory of falsehoods and deconstruct the fallacies of his arguments one-by-one.
Thus, the townhall.com post asserts:
“…despite recent failures to retake the Senate…Democrats have a plan…to keep control of the Senate for many years to come: grant statehood to Washington D.C. [which]…would add two deep-blue seats to the Senate…Making matters even more complicated, many Democrats have said they support Puerto Rico’s bid for statehood…”
The century old constitutional question of equal rights for millions of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico presents itself to the nation for resolution in the tradition of the Northwest Ordinance as a founding document of the republic. In other words, the future status of Puerto Rico must be resolved in the same constitutional and historic context as the political status of the 32 other U.S. citizen populated territories that became states.
It is an oddity for townhall.com to associate itself with Haskins’ argument that statehood for a 119 year old U.S. territory home to 3.2 million U.S. citizens suddenly has become appended as an afterthought to the constitutionally unprecedented proposal that Washington D.C. should be admitted to the union.
There simply is no equivalence between admitting Washington D.C. which is a tiny federal reservation and admitting a 119 year old American territory. Especially when the territory is larger than some existing states, and more integrated into the nation politically and legally than the 32 territories previously admitted as states.
By comparison, Puerto Rico is almost 5 times larger than Rhode Island, 2 times larger than Delaware, and the same size as Connecticut. However, Washington D.C. is over 80 times smaller than Puerto Rico, and 20 times smaller than Rhode Island.
At 690,000, the population of the densely crowded residential sectors of the federal reservation within Washington D.C. is comparable in nominal numbers of citizens to the sparsely populated open space state of Wyoming. In contrast, the 3.2 million U.S. citizen population with room to grow in Puerto Rico is greater than the populations of at least 18 states. The population of Puerto Rico is almost 5 times greater than that of the mostly cramped Washington D.C. national capital federal area.
Of greater historical and legal import, Washington D.C. is a federal reservation governed by Congress as the seat of the federal government under Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution. As a political subdivision of the U.S. under direct federal rule, D.C. was never intended or allowed to have more than token “home rule.”
The so-called “home rule” that Washington D.C. exercises is permitted at the pleasure of Congress in the exercise of its Article I power over the federal capital. The only semblance of equality the residents of the federal district have is the 23rd Amendment, giving the voters representation in the Electoral College that chooses the President.
In reality the 23rd Amendment is a failed attempt to address and mitigate the disenfranchisement of the residents. Yet, the 23rd Amendment is actually based on a partial or fractional share of the rights secured fully by the constitution only for citizens of the states. Instead of being a step toward equality the 23rd Amendment has been used as a reason to tolerate and excuse denial of equal rights to citizens residing in the national capital district against their democratically expressed political will.
As such, even if well-intended the fractional share of citizenship rights under the 23rd Amendment is not different in underling constitutional logic than the original 3/5ths compromise that counted slaves as a fraction of a person for purposes of population based apportionment of representation in the House of Representatives.
As citizens without a state the residents of Washington D.C. are still denied fully equal rights of government by consent of the governed. That’s because the right to vote in federal elections for fully equal representation in Congress, the Electoral College and hence in appointment of Supreme Court justices is not a right of national citizenship alone. Rather it also requires eligibility to vote in a state of the union for representation of the state in the Senate and apportionment of representation in a state Congressional district.
In contrast, Puerto Rico is governed by Congress under Article IV, Section 3, Clause 4 of the U.S. Constitution. That is in the same set of provisions under which states are admitted to the union.
There are 32 precedents for geographically large U.S. citizen populated Article IV territories to be admitted as states under Section 3 thereof. As noted, there are no precedents for a geographically small federal reservation organized and ruled by Congress under Article I, Section 8, Clause 3.
Conservatives still support self-detersmination, right?
Haskins takes townhall.com deeper into troubled water with the following assertions:
“In 2017, Puerto Ricans voted overwhelmingly in favor of a referendum to request statehood…although only one-quarter of the island’s citizens chose to take part in the referendum. If Puerto Rico were to become a state, it, too, would likely provide two additional seats for Democrats…More than double the number of Puerto Ricans voted in the state’s 2016 Democratic primary than in the Republican primary.”
This deliberately omits the facts that 97% of the voters chose statehood in the 2017 vote, with 24% voter turnout attributable primarily to a boycott by anti-statehood factions expecting defeat.
Another factor in low turnout was voter fatigue after a 2012 vote with 78% turnout in which voters rejected the current territorial status by a 54% majority, and instead approved statehood over independent nationhood by 61%.
Even though anti-statehood factions boycotted the second ballot choice between statehood and nationhood, the number of votes cast for statehood in the second question was greater than the votes for the current status on the first question.
That is a more definitive and authoritative act of democratic self-determination than that which preceded admission to the union for most of the 32 territories admitted as states between 1796 and 1959.
Haskins claims to be a champion of the anti-socialist conservative movement. But he notes there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in Puerto Rico without attributing that to the legacy from decades of federal social engineering experiments under Democratic rule from Washington.
Starting under FDR’s New Deal and expanding under LBJ’s Great Society ideology, the national Democratic Party dominated and nearly monopolized Puerto Rico politics decade after decade. Yet, the Republican Party in Puerto Rico is was founded by an African American medical doctor who was a leader of the statehood movement. A tenacious GOP survived decades in the minority and surged into majority status often enough to make Puerto Rico competitive for both national parties.
Haskins also neglects to point out that most Republicans and Democrats in Puerto Rico are members of the local pro-statehood party in the territory. Once the Congress declares terms for statehood that are ratified by the people, the three local statehood, status quo and independence parties will be merged with the national two party system.
Only then will the people choose between Republican and Democrat parties. Whenever territories come close to statehood the two national parties make a calculation of whether statehood will strengthen or weaken each party’s short term prospects for control of each House of Congress and the White House.
The party that believes it will be strengthened by statehood supports admission, and the party that fears loss of control opposes statehood. However, long term and sometimes even short term, the party that first and/or best served and supported the cause of fully equal rights of representation benefits most politically from admission of a new state.
Thus, the territory of Alaska was a Democratic territory that flipped and became Republican, and Hawaii was a Republican territory that flipped and became a Democratic territory. In both cases the change happened during and immediately after admission, based on how the fairness of the two national parties toward the territory during the transition to statehood was perceived by the public.
When all else fails read the Constitution
Haskins and townhall.com were not through revising history and confusing the legal and political realities, as demonstrated by this quote regarding the admission process:
“Approval from the states is not needed, but the citizens of Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico would need to vote…reasonable arguments exist to admit Puerto Rico…[but] Washington D.C. culture is indistinguishable from Northern Virginia and the nearby suburbs in Maryland…a much simpler solution would be to allow Maryland and Virginia to split control of most of the district.”
Haskins proposes that the residential sector of Washington be “split” and divided more or less evenly and transferred to Virginia and Maryland. There reasons that is a really bad idea require a full explanation.
Washington D.C. originally was formed from lands ceded in equal parts on both sides of the Potomac near Georgetown by the states of Virginia and Maryland, respectively. Today its corpus comprises the area contributed by Maryland, so giving half of it to Virginia is an offense to historical rights and legal equities.
The only precedent for a change of political status for Washington D.C. is the 1847 “retrocession” in which the Alexandria and Arlington half of Washington was returned to Virginia to restore full and equal rights of national and state citizenship to the people as Virginians.
Since Maryland ceded its territory for the purposes of establishing a federal district under Article I, Section 8, Clause 17, use of those lands for any other purpose, including to form a new state with which Maryland and other states share power in the union, should require approval of Maryland.
After all, Article IV, Section 3 requires state legislature approval to form a new state form within an existing state. States cede property to the federal government for purposes of Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 to form a federal district, but if that property is to be re-purposed to form a state, arguably the mandate for Article IV state approval would arise.
In any event, retrocession would allow Washington D.C. to be reduced to the campus of the national mall. The residential sectors would be returned to Maryland to restore fully equal rights of representation secured only by the combination of national and state citizenship.
Finally, Haskins makes the suggestion both cavalier and gratuitous that the solution to the problem of tandem statehood for Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico – which he fabricates – is to start carving up existing states to create new Republican red states and preserve the balance of power in the Senate.
Deciding on the admission of states based on preservation of the balance between free and slave states was a compelling purpose before the Civil War. But admitting states primarily to give political parties an advantage in Congress elevates something that should be a side effect into a constitutional imperative.
Delaying or expediting the equal rights that come only with statehood for short term political advantage – as opposed to doing what is right while exploiting every possible advantage – is cynical if not unconscionable. Preserving or changing the partisan balance in Congress should be left to the voters.
Not just clever to a fault, Haskins’ proposal to initiate partition of a state for narrow party purposes, which might be even more attractive to eastern California by the way, is at best flippant. Real conservatives don’t pose contrived partisan scenarios then propose to intervene with radical solutions that are just as much social engineering as left wing socialist schemes.
As such, the Haskins narrative it is not to be taken seriously unless the people rather than the pundits adopt its abstract and speculative presuppositions.