Same Goal Different Challenges

On May 15th, 2013, Puerto Rico’s Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives Pedro Peurluisi, offered a bill which would bring about a referendum for Puerto Ricans to vote on whether they want to become a state in the union or not. If the will of the people reflected through the ballot, expresses a majority’s desire for statehood Puerto Rico would then petition Congress for admission to the union. District of Columbia is presently one step ahead of Puerto Rico by requesting admission to the union as a state. Both territories face significant challenges but both also have tremendous opportunities to seize the moment and press forward to make a real push for statehood in the coming years. Citizens of both territories have acknowledged that their current status is not the end they seek but the paths ahead for both have some similarities but many stark differences and challenges. Below is an assessment of the key challenges and players in the push for each in the statehood movement.

  • The People: The citizens of the District voted for statehood and approved a state Constitution back in the 1980s. The referendum was a long time ago but when polled residents both in the District and around the country support the components of statehood, equal congressional representation and budget autonomy. While the majority of voters in Puerto Rico voted last year that they didn’t like the country’s current political status it was a multi-step vote that did result in the majority of voters saying they wanted statehood as the alternative but aspects of the vote made the results a bit unclear. The Huffington Post had a good piece on why the vote was not as conclusive as it may appear. Thus the people of Puerto Rico have yet to make a clear pro-statehood statement the way the citizens of the District have.
  • Taxes: The District is simply treated unfairly. District citizens pay federal taxes and have no meaningful congressional representation. The people of Puerto Rico do NOT pay federal taxes. In a country founded by a rebel against a system of taxation without representation the District has a more compelling case to become a state now and it’s long overdue.
  • The Constitution: Yes, we are a constitutional democracy and enshrined in the constitution (Article I Section 8) is language authorizing Congress to create and oversee a federal district. This point is what many mistakenly use to oppose statehood for the District. It is a barrier but it’s also a misunderstood issue, the District can be shrunk in size as it was in 1847 (NewColumbia_StateMap1), and then the current residential and commercial portions can become the state. The constitution is silent on Puerto Rico which makes it easier for Puerto Rico because the constitution was also silent on every other admitted state so their path would be a similar path to the 37 other states added after the constitution was ratified.
  • Congress: Congress has the constitutional right to legislate in the District but since Home Rule in 1974 Congress has only intermittently meddled/legislated for the District. Often members of Congress who have serious cases of “Governor envy” want to act as executives and impose their pet projects on the District without the people of the District or our elected leaders having a say in the matter. Many in Congress will simply not want to give up the right to score cheap political points (looking at you Trent Franks) back home by picking on a defenseless unrepresented territory. Puerto Rico, on the other hand, has been free to govern itself and operate in a fairly autonomous manner and thus Congress doesn’t have the same paternalistic instincts toward Puerto Rico that it has towards the District.
  • The President: When it comes to the current President the District should be disappointed in his leadership related to our equality. He used the District as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations, has yet uttered a word about statehood (yes, he’s said we deserve representation but that’s not statehood), and after 4 years our leadership praise him for changing his license plates but that is token support at best. As for Puerto Rico, President Obama has said he’d stand with the decision of the people of Puerto Rico if they want statehood and is even willing to fund a referendum ($2.5 million dollars) to get clarity on what the people of Puerto Rico want. While the President plays only a small role constitutionally in admitting states, politically Presidents play a big role and this President has stood up stronger for the will of the people of Puerto Rico than for the will of the people across the street from his house.
  • Party Politics: The District is heavily Democratic (ironically not very democratic) which makes Republican members of Congress hesitate to support anything that would potentially add two Democratic Senators. This mindset is a horrible distortion of what representative democracy should be all about but yes, our democracy has been corrupted in other ways too. Puerto Rico, however, has two main parties that both have strong support and the electorate goes back and forth between the two parties. This makes partisan focused members of Congress willing to take a chance on Puerto Rico. The Republicans think they might get allies and so do the Democrats. It shouldn’t be this way because expanding equality should be about the rights of a free people not their party affiliation.
  • Local Leadership: When Puerto Rico’s Delegate to Congress offered his bill to push for an up or down referendum on statehood Puerto Rico sent 50 people to Capitol Hill to lobby for support on the bill. When Delegate Norton offered her statehood bill there was hardly a peep among the elected leadership in this town. While citizens have been knocking on doors in both the House and the Senate the elected leaders on the Council have done nothing to push for statehood and yet the Capitol is a 20 minute walk from the Wilson Building. Puerto Rican leadership is better organized and seemingly more committed to the issue even with a divided electorate on the issue. The District’s leadership gives good speeches but does zero ground work to push the bill. The Mayor and Council should learn more about how to organize from Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico, should its citizens want statehood, would be a great partner for the District in the push for statehood. Historically, Congress has admitted pairs or groups of states into the Union at the same time so Puerto Rico could be our statehood buddy. To loosely assess the strengths and weaknesses of the components listed above the District has an advantage in our justification for becoming a state because we’re taxed federally without representation and because our citizens have given a clear signal that statehood is the end we seek. However, in the twisted political world we live in Puerto Rico might have fewer hurdles with Congress and the President in the push for statehood and their leadership seems more intent and methodical in pushing this issue forward. We can and should learn from each other and work together because ultimately for those of us who want statehood our goal is not special treatment, our goal is equal treatment and that’s quite American.

Josh Burch

Brookland, DC

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