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How Would Statehood for Puerto Rico Change Congress?

Puerto Rico has voted again on its political status, this time with a yes/no vote on statehood like the votes held in Alaska and Hawaii before they became states.

Many of the changes that would take place if Puerto Rico becomes a state are  predictable. For example, as a state, Puerto Rico would have votes in the Electoral College and Puerto Ricans would participate in presidential elections.

Other possible changes are less certain. One change that is the subject of speculation is how statehood for Puerto Rico might change the legislative branch of the U.S. federal government.

The Senate

Every State has two senators. Since the U.S. Constitution guarantees that all new States enter “on an equal footing” with existing States, Puerto Rico would  have two senators. The Senate, which now has 100 senators, would have 102 senators, or 104 if D.C. becomes a state along with Puerto Rico.

Two senators from Puerto Rico might very well be Hispanic, and their addition would make the Senate more representative of the United States. This is an argument in favor of Puerto Rico statehood for many of its proponents.

On the other side, there is fear among Republicans that the State of Puerto Rico would vote Democratic. The Senate might end up with a Democratic majority. Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ), who is currently trailing Mark Kelly in the polls, recently said in an interview with NBC News that if DC and Puerto Rico became states “[Republicans would] never get the Senate back again.”

However, Puerto Rico votes for both Democrats and Republicans. The current Governor of Puerto Rico is a Democrat and the Residential Commissioner is Republican. There is no certainty that the new senators from Puerto Rico would be Democrats.

The House

While the Senate has a simple rule — two senators for each State — the House of Representatives is not such a simple case. Each state has Members of Congress based on the population of the State.

Specifically, the House has 435 members (a total set in 1900, which could be increased). Each state gets one representative, and the remaining congressional seats are portioned out among the states according to complex formulas based on the number of people counted in the most recent Census.

These numbers are recalculated after every national Census. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the 2020 Census is expected to change the numbers of representatives in 13 States:

  • Arizona, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Oregon are expected to get one more seat each.
  • Texas is expected to get two more seats.
  • Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia are expected to lose one seat each.

These predictions have nothing to do with Puerto Rico, and will not be affected by statehood.

Growing the House

According to the most recent available Census data, Puerto Rico has a larger population than many states, but this might not have any immediate effect on the number of Members of the House of Representatives.

So far in U.S. history, Congress has added new seats in the House when adding a new state. Hawaii and Alaska each got one representative when they joined the Union in 1959. This brought the total number of congressional representatives to 437. When the next Census was conducted, the total number of representatives went back to 435, and the seats were apportioned according to the usual formula.

Following this precedent (which has also been proposed on behalf of Washington, D.C.), adding new states would temporarily increase the size of the House.

At present, each Congressional representative represents, on average, 740,000 people. Some observers claim that these numbers are too large, and that the House of Representatives should be increased to a number that gives each member a more manageable job. The limit of 435 members was settled in 1920, when the normal reapportionment of the House did not take place after the Census, as it usually would have.

No changes in the number have been made in a century, even though the population of the United States has grown enormously in that time.

The parties

Some Republican leaders have expressed concern that statehood for Puerto Rico would result in more Democrats in Congress. This does not square with the observable facts. The current Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico and the Governor of Puerto Rico are both Republicans, and both have endorsed President Trump’s reelection bid.

It was expected that Hawaii would be a Republican State and Alaska would vote Democratic. Exactly the opposite turned out to be true. History shows that predicting the allegiance of a new state is a chancy business. Puerto Rico’s history shows that Puerto Rico would be a swing state.

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