Now that the long, drawn out 2012 campaign season has come and gone, we partisans have taken down our lawn signs and recovered from our Election Night hangovers, it’s time for the members of our democratic government to come together and implement the expressed will of the people.
First order of business: Puerto Rico. Yes, Puerto Rico.
On Election Day, Puerto Rican voters addressed a two-part referendum on the unincorporated territory’s relationship with the United States government. On the first question, the voters first voted as to whether to keep the current status as an unincorporated U.S. territory, and then in the second question, whether to retain their status as a territory of the U.S., whether to declare independence, or to join the Union as a full-fledged state. It appears that more than 937,955, or 54 percent of the voters said “No” on the first question – indicating that they were discontent with the present territory status. Almost 500,000 voters chose to leave the second question blank, but of those who did vote, 805,155, or 61 percent of the electorate, chose statehood. For comparison’s sake, President Obama won 50 percent of the popular vote in the presidential election, and this has been interpreted as a broad electoral mandate. So 54 percent of the Puerto Rican electorate voting against the status quo, and 61 percent voting for statehood should be interpreted as nothing less than an unambiguous mandate for change.
Likewise, the voting returns showed another unambiguous mandate for change: Latino voters showed that they are abandoning the Republican Party in droves, not the least because they are alienated by the GOP’s increasingly vocal disdain for Latino voters. In the past three election cycles, the GOP standard-bearers have suffered in the past two presidential elections as their share of the Latino vote dropped from 40% for George W. Bush in 2004 to 31% for John McCain and 27% for Mitt Romney – all the while the Latino share of the electorate has soared. This cannot be explained away because law-and-order Republicans want to enforce immigration laws. Over the past few years, Republican demagoguery on this issue has taken a turn for the shrill and patently offensive; i.e. Arizona’s racial-profiling SB1070, even worse copycat statutes in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, English-Only resolutions, calls for a Constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship, “anchor babies”, Sheriff Joe Arpaio's prominent role at the Republican National Convention, etc. Latino alienation extended to GOP standad bearer Mitt Romney because he unabashedly pandered to these xenophobic forces to win his party's nomination. Exit polling data evinces that the GOP's alienation of Latino voters has not just been a phenomenon confined to immigrant communities; this trend has led thoroughly-assimilated Latino-Americans, and even Puerto Ricans – who are unquestionably U.S. citizens – to by and large reject the Republican brand.
Enter Puerto Rico. What with the Grand Ol’ Party’s post mortem soul searching, the Puerto Rican statehood plebiscite offers an opportunity for President Obama to work together with the Party of Lincoln on a major issue in what could be a rare moment of bipartisanship, and perhaps set a reconciliatory tone for a productive second term. The GOP ought to jump at the chance, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because supporting Puerto Rican statehood is the least that Republicans can do to set the record straight and demonstrate that they do support at least one Latino community’s quest to expand their rights as U.S. citizens.
This is where all of the rest of us Americans come in. In order for Puerto Rico to join the Union and become the 51st state, the other 50 have to agree to that – not as individual states, but as a nation. According to Article IV of the Constitution, Congress has the power to admit new states the Union; Congress doesn’t have to admit states to the Union. It can, and it has rarely declined. Though America hasn’t admitted a new state to the Union since the admission of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959, the framework for doing so would be the Enabling Act of 1802, by which Ohio became a state. In order to admit a new state, Congress would likewise pass an Enabling Act which authorizes the people of a given territory to frame a constitution. There would also be some requirements for a successful candidate for admission: the people of the would-be state have to hold a constitutional convention to decide by majority whether to form a state constitution and a state government, and the state constitution must be republican (lower case R) in nature. Upon Congress’ acceptance of that constitution, the territory would be admitted to the Union as a new state, and its residents would gain all of the rights and responsibilities that his newfound status entails.
Upon the official certification of the results of the Puerto Rican referendum, the ball will be in Congress’ court. This should really be a no-brainer. Congress ought to pass an Enabling Act immediately and unanimously. There is no question about population; with roughly 3,706,690 permanent residents, Puerto Rico would be the 29th-most populous state – with more people than Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi or Connecticut. Unlike statehood for the District of Columbia, there is no suggestion that statehood would thwart the intent of the Founding Fathers. There is no question of loyalty; Puerto Ricans are already American citizens, they already serve in the military, and they vote in primary elections. Most importantly, a clear majority of Puerto Ricans have now exercised their franchise to signify that they want to be full-fledged members of the American experience.
So far, the cause of Puerto Rican statehood has been most publicly championed by liberal Democrats like President Obama, and some of the very most populist members of the House: Bronx Representatives José Serrano and Nydia Velázquez, and Chicago Congressman Luis Gutíerrez. The onus is now on the Party of Lincoln to follow suite. When the House of Representatives voted on Serrano’s Puerto Rico Democracy Act in the 110th Congress – essentially a symbolic resolution which supported the holding of the Puerto Rican plebiscite, it passed 223 to 189, with Democrats voting 184 “yeas” and 40 “nays”, and Republicans voting almost inversely, 39 “yeas” and 129 “nays.” This was a grave mistake, and it ought not be repeated. This time, with Puertorriqueños awaiting an Enabling Act so that they can hold a statehood convention, the whole world is watching.
The second island state could even be a fertile ground for Republican voters. Much of the predominantly Catholic population holds traditional views on marriage, sexuality, and abortion, and one of the main reasons why Puerto Ricans oppose statehood is that they do not want to pay federal income taxes. For the past four years, the office of gobernador was held by Luis Fortuño – a Scott Walker-type conservative who cut government spending, privatized public employee pensions, slashed personal income taxes by a half and corporate income taxes by a third, and joined Republican governors in calling for the repeal of Obamacare. Puerto Rico could be a real swing state – that is, so long as Congressional Republicans join their Democratic colleagues in passing an Enabling Act. If there is any meaningful GOP opposition to any votes on Puerto Rican statehood, expect it to create an indelible memory in Puerto Rican politics for generations.
What with the explicitly non-partisan nature of Puerto Rican statehood, this is truly Republican’s opportunity to lose. Unlike Serrano’s bill – which was really just a non-binding resolution – an Enabling Act in this next session of Congress would in fact pave the way for Puerto Rico to embark on the road to statehood. This is a roll call vote which will be watched very closely; it might very well be one of the most consequential votes for the political future of individual lawmakers’ careers but also for the viability of the Republican Party among Latino voters.
There simply is no viable rationale for any U.S. lawmaker to defy the express will of the Puerto Rican electorate. Even if lawmakers condition their support for statehood on the adoption of English as the official language, they indicate their latent prejudice against the Spanish-speaking population as being somehow un-American. See, e.g., Rick Santorum's ill-advised reservation that Puerto Rico “should comply with this and every other federal law – and that is that English must be the main language"; Rep. Dan Burton's insertion of language into the Puerto Rico Democracy Act expressing that “any official language requirements of the Federal Government shall apply to Puerto Rico”. Such insistence that Puerto Ricans speak English indicates these lawmakers’ ignorance of the fact that Puerto Ricans study English in every grade of public school. It also indicates such politicians' ignorance of the law; there is no official language of the United States, let alone a linguistic prerequisite for states’ admission to the Union. Louisiana became the 18th state in the Union as a bilingual Anglophone-Francophone state, and Hawaii became the 50th with English and Hawaiian as official state languages.
Any other argument for suppressing the will of this Election Day’s referendum would simply be grasping at straws. Because Puerto Ricans are already American citizens through and through, there is no question whatsoever about illegal immigration. Many Puerto Rican residents do not want to have to pay federal income taxes – but a clear majority of voters have expressed their consent to do so. With the next wave of reapportionment in 2022, some states will lose House seats and electoral votes to make way for Puerto Rico’s Congressional delegation – but those states would already be losing House seats and electoral votes to other states with faster-growing populations. Some mainland Americans have even expressed concern with violating the present symmetry of the 50 stars on the American flag – such a lame rationale for denying 3 million U.S. citizens their civil rights isn’t even worth a serious response.
So when the referendum votes are officially certified, and President Obama and Senate leader Harry Reid call for a Puerto Rican Statehood Enabling Act – and you can bet that Democratic Congressmen will be tripping over each other trying to be the original sponsor of this bill – the Republican Caucus in the House and Senate ought to follow suite. The GOP has to support Puerto Rican statehood not just because it’s the right thing to do, but it might be the first best opportunity for Republican officeholders to demonstrate that they are for expanding the rights of citizenship to a rapidly-growing Latino constituency. And once that door is open, perhaps the open-minded members of the Party of Lincoln might put bipartisanship and compromise back in their vocabulary and realize just how great it feels to be on the right side of progress on civil rights. This could be the harbinger of even greater legislative efforts to come. Maybe, just maybe, working together on Puerto Rican statehood might inspire enough Republicans to reach across the aisle and work with the President to pass an immigration reform bill that allows another huge swath of Latinos living and working in our country to realize their full potential as American citizens.