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Everything Congress Needs to Know About Puerto Rico It Can Learn From Ronald Reagan

By Howard Hills*
It is no surprise that local political parties in Puerto Rico still are debating next steps after the historic 2012 vote by U.S. citizens in the territory to end the present status and seek statehood. Meanwhile, the focus in Washington has shifted to a Government Accounting Office (GAO) report on varying scenarios for Puerto Rico’s transition to statehood.

The GAO report speculates about possible fiscal outcomes during admission to the union, due to disparities in current federal territorial policy. For example, U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico already pay the same federal payroll taxes to cover costs of major federal programs like Social Security and Medicare, but benefit levels in the territory are lower than in the states.

Transition to statehood would mean correction of that inequity by increasing some federal benefits in Puerto Rico. Similarly, the current high rate of taxation by the local territorial government would have to be adjusted to integrate Puerto Rico fully into the federal tax system.

Federal and local policies that treat Puerto Rico like a state for some purposes and a foreign jurisdiction for other purposes have created uncertainty impeding more diversified investment. Although the GAO was unable to quantify the fiscal impact, historically every territory transitioning to statehood has experienced dramatic sustained growth contributing to convergence with the national economy.

The GAO report identifies the measures that will be required to end the fiscal anomalies of the current status, confirming what Ronald Regan observed over three decades ago: “As a ‘commonwealth’ Puerto Rico is now neither a state nor independent, and thereby has an historically unnatural status.”

President Reagan knew if Puerto Rico remains under U.S. sovereignty only statehood will secure equal rights of national citizenship and integration into the political economy of the United States.

If Reagan had been President when 54% of the voters withdrew consent to the present status and 61% chose statehood, the same leadership he showed advancing democracy on every continent would have been brought to bear to make it possible for Puerto Rico to achieve fully democratic status as a state.

In light of the 2012 vote that triggered the GAO report on transition to statehood, it is timely to recall President Reagan’s own words from the White House on January 12, 1982:
“We recognize the right of the Puerto Rican people to self-determination…this administration will accept whatever choice is made by a majority of the island’s population…Puerto Ricans have borne the responsibilities of U.S. citizenship with honor and courage…its strong tradition of democracy provides leadership and stability in that region…In statehood, the language and the culture of the island – rich in history and tradition – would be respected, for in the United Sates the cultures of the world live together with pride…”

If Reagan were President today no doubt he would agree if Congress chose to confirm the 2012 vote by sponsoring an up or down vote on statehood, just as it did in several other territories before defining terms for admission to the union.

Yet, the local anti-statehood faction refuses to drop demands for inclusion of a non-viable spoiler option based on unrealistic proposals to “enhance” the current status that Congress has rejected for 65 years. That is what prevented a true majority vote on legally valid options in early status votes.

The current status got its up or down vote in 2012, and lost. Statehood won, so at a minimum it now deserves its own up or down vote.

Congress can define the terms for statehood or independence, but it cannot deny the right to democratic self-determination indefinitely after voters rejected the current status. Thus, this is another issue on which President Reagan’s historical compass was true.

*Howard Hills served in the White House National Security Council and was lead counsel on territorial status affairs in the Reagan Administration

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