Imagine if you had U.S. citizenship, a U.S. passport, and the right to die in combat as a U.S. soldier — but no right to vote in presidential elections and no voting representation in Congress. Sounds nuts, I know. But that’s the deal if you live on the island of Puerto Rico. And that’s basically been the deal since 1917.
Which is why Puerto Rico should become our 51st state. It’s much bigger than Delaware; it has more people than Alaska and Hawaii combined (as Casey Stengel would say, you can look it up); and, earlier this month, its citizens appeared to endorse statehood for the first time. If Congress would just OK the idea and President Barack Obama would scratch his signature on it, we could redo the American flag.
Of course, it’s not nearly that simple. Compared with granting statehood, the fiscal cliff is a walk in the park.
For starters, Congress has enough trouble running the union we already have. It can barely navigate its own Byzantine politics, much less fathom Puerto Rico’s. Indeed, the results of the island’s statehood referendum on Nov. 6 — one of the most overlooked stories of this election — had all the simplicity of a Rubik’s Cube.
It was a two-part process. First, voters were asked whether they approve or disapprove of the island’s "present form of territorial status," as a self-ruling commonwealth that elects its own governor and legislature. Fifty-four per cent disapproved.
Then they were asked to choose an alternative arrangement: U.S. statehood, independent nation, or something called "sovereign free associated state." Of those who voted on that question, 61 per cent went with statehood.
The hitch, however, is that 470,000 voters didn’t vote on that question; they left that part of the ballot blank. So even though statehood passed, and sentiment for statehood was clearly stronger than in all previous referenda, it would appear that the island’s citizenry is not exactly eager for it — especially when you consider that in the same election, the pro-statehood governor was beaten by his anti-statehood challenger.
On the other hand, the pro-statehood "resident commissioner" — the guy who represents the island on Capitol Hill — was reelected. He’s allowed to vote in House committees and can give speeches on the House floor. But he’s barred from voting on the floor. I’m not sure who came up with these rules, but Joseph Heller of Catch-22 fame would have approved.
Anyway, the referendum results were nebulous enough to let our leaders off the hook. The truth is that neither President Obama nor the Republicans in Congress are anxious to move the ball on this issue. Each side has its own reasons to sustain the status quo.
Obama actually considered the question. Last year, a presidential task force concluded that the president and Congress should support "any fair, transparent, and swift effort that is consistent with and reflects the will of the people of Puerto Rico" should a referendum produce "a clear result." Note the wiggle room: It’s easy to argue that this month’s 61 per cent statehood vote was not a clear result.
For Obama and the Democrats, statehood would open a can of worms. The island’s poverty rate is 45 per cent, which means the feds would have to pump in a lot of new money (insufficiently offset by added income-tax revenue from the island) at a time when Democrats are under pressure to cut entitlements.
Plus, the politics would be thorny. Statehood could give Puerto Rico five or six House members. Given how Puerto Ricans typically vote, these representatives would probably be Democrats. So it’s hard to believe that John Boehner’s GOP would sign off on statehood unless Democrats agree to give up seats elsewhere. (Good luck with that.) Democrats would probably insist that the GOP instead agree to simply expand the House membership by five or six seats. (Again, good luck.)
The addition of two Senate seats would be nonnegotiable. And they would likely be filled by Democrats as well. Can you imagine the Republicans agreeing to that? Given their propensity for nominating extremist candidates who say weird stuff about rape, they can’t even compete effectively for the Senate seats we already have.
This is why, deep down, Republicans would be happy if the prospect of Puerto Rican statehood faded away forever. If they say yes to it, they’ll lose ground in Congress and give Democrats another blue state in presidential elections. But if they say no, they’ll further alienate stateside Hispanics, 71 per cent of whom backed Obama. As Stephen Colbert quipped the other night, two of the most terrifying words for Republicans are "buenos dias.
These are the kinds of issues that make congressional heads hurt. They’d rather wrangle over fetal personhood and the price of duck stamps than ponder an expansion of the Union.
So there’s no need to take down the flag and get out the needle and thread anytime soon. And how would the stars be realigned anyway? That question alone could set Twitter aflame for years.
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
—McClatchy Tribune Services