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A Page from History: The Puerto Rico Statehood Act of 1977

The Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act of 2021 was filed in the spring of 2021. But that was not by any means the first Puerto Rico Statehood Act.

Consider the Puerto Rico Statehood Act of 1977, introduced by President Gerald Ford after he rejected a proposal for “perfected commonwealth.” The Statehood Act was designed to provide economic opportunity and equal rights for the people of Puerto Rico without the unconstitutional nature of the “perfected commonwealth.”

“[T]hese great people are still not represented with a vote in either the House or Senate,” Ford pointed out. “They are still not represented in the election of a President. Full equality for the people of Puerto Rico cannot come without full representation.”

This situation has not changed.

Ford laid out seven steps to bring Puerto Rico into the Union as a state:

  • Congress would establish a joint U.S.-Puerto Rico Commission, “in recognition of the fact that statehood for Puerto Rico would require the resolution of many complex issues,” to allow the people of Puerto Rico to participate in determining the details of statehood for Puerto Rico.
  • Congress, after receiving the report of the commission described above, would set the terms and conditions of statehood.
  • Puerto Rico would hold a referendum, a vote on statehood.
  • If Puerto Rico voted in favor of statehood, delegates to a Constitutional Convention would meet to frame a Constitution for the proposed state. Puerto Rico’s current constitution was in existence in 1977, so it is clear that Ford envisioned a new state constitution for the Island.
  • The new constitution would be presented to the people of Puerto Rico for ratification.
  • The ratified constitution would be submitted to the President of the United States and to Congress for approval.
  • Once the constitution was approved, the voters of Puerto Rico would elect two Senators and five Members of the House of Representatives.
  • The Governor of Puerto Rico would certify the results of the election to the President, and the President would proclaim Puerto Rico a state.

These steps were listed in a letter from Ford which accompanied a draft of the bill. The bill was introduced in Congress and sent to the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs.

The Virgin Islands Daily News reported on Jan 3, 1978, that the act was expected “to die a quiet death,” and no further action was ever taken on this act. The same newspaper report mentioned that the Library of Congress had prepared a report on the economic impact of statehood, much as the Government Accountability Office did following the 2012 referendum. The Library of Congress report concluded that Puerto Rico would not, as some were claiming at the time, lose federal revenue if it became a state.

“All three groups — statehood, commonwealth, and independence” said the Daily News, “praised the report and said it supported their position.”

A CQ Researcher paper written in 1977 sounds at times eerily like modern reporting on the subject. “Puerto Rico’s economic woes are inextricably bound up with the status question,” the paper writes, going on to discuss the U.N. Decolonization Committee’s concerns about Puerto Rico and the growing preference for statehood within the U.S. government. “Puerto Ricans enjoy the rights of American citizenship, except that they do not pay federal taxes or vote in federal elections,” the paper says. “Puerto Rico has a delegate in Congress who, although he has no vote on the floor, may vote in committee and propose legislation. Puerto Ricans are free to migrate to the mainland United States and establish residence, thereby gaining voting rights.”

The paper mentioned at least one situation which has changed since 1977. In the CQ Researcher paper, the authors worried that Puerto Rico’s population, then some 3.2 million U.S. citizens, would double by the turn of the century and become problematic. In fact, the population of Puerto Rico is now dwindling at a record pace.

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