By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Political Science at American Public University
Puerto Rico could soon gain statehood and become the 51st state — and, few Americans are aware of this. The last time this happened was in 1959 with the accession of both Alaska and Hawaii.
In 1898, as a result of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States. The Foraker Act of 1900 established a civil government, and the Jones Act of 1917 gave U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Ricans. In 1952, Puerto Rico approved its constitution, although it has no representation in Congress, much like Washington, DC. It is represented in Congress by a resident commissioner, who is elected to four-year terms, but has no voting authority. On the other hand, residents of Puerto Rico do not pay federal income taxes.
There are other current issues to consider regarding Puerto Rico. First, 41 percent of the population lives below the U.S. poverty line (defined as a family of four earning less than $23,500 per year). In 2009, the Puerto Rican budget deficit was $3.3 billion, and it has increased since then. In 2009, unemployment was around 16 percent (more than twice the mainland unemployment percentage). Finally, only 15 percent of residents are fluent in English.
The issue of independence or statehood first surfaced in the 1960s. Referenda were held on this issue in 1967, 1993 and 1998. In all three elections, the status quo won the majority of the vote. As such, Puerto Rico remained a territory of the U.S.
In 2009, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, which provided U.S. funding for more referenda to determine the island’s ultimate political status, was passed by the House Natural Resources Committee by a vote of 30-8, and then by the full House by a vote of 223-169. Unfortunately, the Senate never voted on this Act, and it died with the end of the 111th Congress.
However, things changed in 2012. Puerto Rico funded and executed its own referendum on the statehood issue, and the results changed significantly. On Nov. 6, 2012, Puerto Ricans were asked two questions sequentially. First, they were asked if they preferred the current status of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory. When asked in this manner, the Puerto Ricans voted to change the status 54 percent to 46 percent. Second, they were asked to choose their preferred status, either statehood or independence. Over 61 percent voted for statehood. President Obama pledged to respect the voters’ decision, and encouraged Congress to act on this matter.
Meanwhile, on Dec. 11, 2012, the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico enacted a concurrent resolution requesting that the U.S. President and Congress act on the results of the 2012 referendum. Then, on July 17, 2013, the House Appropriations Committee approved the Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act authorizing $2.5 million for a new Puerto Rico plebiscite (i.e., another referendum). By Aug. 6, 2013, this Act had at least 120 members of Congress across partisan lines supporting it (more supporters than over 97 percent of all House bills).
So, on Aug. 1, 2013, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (responsible for statehood issues) held a hearing on Puerto Rico’s status as a result of the 2012 referendum vote. The Puerto Rico Commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi, a pro-independence supporter, testified before the committee urging statehood.
“I represent more U.S. citizens than 42 Senators. My constituents have fought side by side with your constituents from Korea to Afghanistan. They can move to the states for the price of a plane ticket. But if they stay in Puerto Rico they cannot vote for president, have no representation in the Senate and elect one member to the House,” stated Pierluisi to Congress
On Jan. 17, 2014, President Obama signed the Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act into law. A new referendum is now authorized and paid for using $2.5 million that was allocated for it according to the Act. This final statehood referendum can be held at any time as the Act provided no deadlines.
The most important thing about this Act is that this issue is not over with the end of the recent 113th Congress. However, the Republican Party now controls the 114th Congress with majorities in both the Senate and the House. In general, Republicans are not keen to move forward on Puerto Rican statehood. Their primary concern is that, as a state, Puerto Rico would be granted two senators in the Senate and as many as five representatives in the House (based on its population). Exit polls in the 2012 presidential election indicated that Barack Obama won 83 percent of the Puerto Rican votes on the mainland. As such, the Republican Party is wary of having two Democratic-leaning senators and five such representatives, and seven Democratic electoral votes for every future presidential election.
With all of this in mind, it appears that the new referendum will likely not occur over the next two years. If the Democratic Party wins the White House again and gains back control of either the Senate or the House in the 115th Congress, then Puerto Rico’s best chance at becoming the 51st state would be sometime after 2016.
I recommend people start designing our new flag with 51 stars.
About the Author
Dr. Schwalbe, Program Director of Political Science at American Public University, retired from the Air Force in 2007 as a colonel after 30 years of active duty service. He has a Bachelor of Science degree from the Air Force Academy; a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Golden Gate University; a Master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School; a Master’s degree from the Naval War College; and, a PhD from Auburn University in Public Policy.