Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Puerto Rico: Key to DC Statehood?

There's a long history of new states being admitted in pairs in order to keep the balance of power in the U.S. Congress.  Yet, there seems to be little consideration of whether Puerto Rican statehood could be the key to the future status of the District of Columbia.

Early on our nation's history, states were admitted in pairs -- free states and slave states: Indiana and Mississippi (1816-17), Illinois and Alabama (1818-19), Maine and Missouri (resulting in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 specifying that Louisiana Purchase territory north of latitude 36° 30' would be organized as free states and territory south of that line would be reserved for organization as slave states), Michigan and Arkansas (1836-37), Iowa and Florida (1845-46), and Wisconsin and Texas (1848, 1845).  California followed by pledging to maintain the balance with one pro-slavery and one anti-slavery Senator (1850).

The U.S. has now gone the longest period of time since the last state was admitted - 51 years.  Those two states - Alaska and Hawaii - also represented a political compromise, which came in the charged context of the civil rights movement.  At that time, Hawaii was considered a Republican territory because it had mostly had Governors appointed by Republican presidents and Republican state legislatures.  On the other hand, many believed that Alaska would turn out to be Democratic (ironic in the Palin world).  Statehood for Hawaii, as the first state to have a majority nonwhite population, was expected to result in two pro-civil rights senators, endangering the ability of southern segregationist Democrats to maintain a filibuster.  The result was that both Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959.  Even the District's most recent failed quest for voting representation inwas based on giving Utah an additional seat in the House prior to the 2010 census.

That brings us to an interesting column by George Will in Sunday's Washington Post.  Will notes that there may be a popular misconception that because Puerto Rico is majority nonwhite and its residents make substantially less income per capita than even the poorest state, its voters favor Democratic candidates.  Not so.  Puerto Rico has a "very Republican" governor, Luis Fortuno and an overwhelmingly Republican legislature.   According to Will, 78% of Puerto Ricans are pro-life, 91% oppose same-sex marriage and 30% of the 85% who are Christian are evangelicals. A majority supports an agenda of tax and spending cuts, trimming public payrolls, and reducing the state budget deficit.  The Republican party platform, since 1968, has endorsed Puerto Rico's right to choose statehood.

Let's face it.  A closely divided Congress is not going to recognize D.C. Statehood if it means two additional Democratic Senators that would shift the balance of power.  A DC-PR compromise could maintain the balance of power in the Senate and give Republicans an additional bone for providing rights to D.C. residents -- the possibility of a slight gain in the House of Representatives.  Puerto Rican statehood would come with six House seats compared with just one vote for the State of New Columbia.

Puerto Ricans are still deciding whether they want to become a state or continue to enjoy a status that D.C. residents lack -- where they have the benefits of citizenship, but don't pay federal taxes (they also don't get to vote for President and have only a nonvoting delegate in the House).  They rejected statehood in 1967 and 1993, and were almost evenly divided in 1998.  The momentum, however, appears to be increasingly moving toward statehood.

With the Utah-DC idea off the table, is a DC-PR compromise worth seriously examining?

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