Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) recently announced on Twitter that he “would support statehood for Washington DC and Puerto Rico if either of those proposals came up for a vote in the Senate.”
How did the issue arise on Twitter? It all started when Whitehouse told The Providence Journal that he doesn’t have “a particular interest in that issue” when asked his views on statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico.
He feels that D.C. already gets plenty of political attention, and would, he said, be thrilled if his state “got one one-hundredth in Rhode Island of what D.C. gets in federal jobs and activity.”
As for Puerto Rico, that’s a different question.
“Puerto Rico is actually a better case,” Whitehouse said, because they have a big population that qualifies as U.S. and they are not, as D.C. is, an enclave designed to support the federal government.”
Puerto Rico is home to more than 3.4 million U.S. citizens. It is a territory of the United States, as were 32 states which have been admitted since the 18th century.
Whitehouse continued, “The problem of Puerto Rico is it does throw off the balance so you get concerns like, who do [Republicans] find, where they can get an offsetting addition to the states.”
This remark harks back to the years when Congress carefully admitted one state which allowed slavery and one state which did not, in order to maintain the balance between slave and free states. Many people mistakenly believe that states must be admitted in pairs by law. Like Whitehouse, these people think the current version of the free/slave state pairing is Republican/ Democrat.
In fact, the two most recent territories admitted as states, Alaska and Hawaii, were admitted together as a Republic/ Democrat team. At the time, it was expected that Alaska would be a Democratic state and Hawaii would be a Republican state.
Both those predictions were false.
The New Republic agrees with Whitehouse that “Puerto Rico has a good case for statehood. The commonwealth’s 3.3 million Americans outnumber the populations of almost two dozen individual states, but dwell in a constitutional purgatory of sorts.” They go on to say that Puerto Rico has “a greater degree of self-government than a territory.”
Like the belief that states have to enter the Union in pairs, this is a common misconception. In fact, Puerto Rico is a territory and therefore has exactly the degree of self-government that a territory has. While different territories have had different degrees of self-government throughout American history, Puerto Rico is governed by the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says that Congress has “plenary power” — that is, complete power — over Puerto Rico.
The New Republican isn’t confused by the paired states myth, however. They point out that it is neither a legal nor a moral requirement for Puerto Rico to hang around waiting for a Republican partner state. “It’s one thing for lawmakers to engage in a little horse-trading across the aisle to secure funding for a pet issue or pass a budget,” the articles’ author says. “It’s quite another to do it with millions of Americans’ right to self-government.”