Congress Should Put Puerto Rico Statehood on the Post-COVID To-Do List
By Mario H. Lopez, Hispanic Leadership Fund
One thing the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic has shown in terms of public policy is that when there is a real need, lawmakers are indeed actually capable of working in a bipartisan fashion to address pressing issues. The current process has had its stumbling blocks—media dust-ups and substantive policy differences—and of course imperfect results, but in the end Congress managed to move on the relief bills.
As we see the country turn the corner toward economic recovery, it would certainly be helpful for elected officials to address issues that have long been on the back burner—discussed at length but on which never really moved.
One such move, lingering for decades, would be for Congress to finally move to resolve Puerto Rico’s status and allow a process for statehood. Doing so would be bold and perhaps unexpected, but it also is easier than it may sound, as it is solidly popular with Americans.
Puerto Rico has been a United States territory since 1898, and as such Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens of the United States, but territorial status means they are still denied important voting and representational rights, and face other restrictions. Puerto Rico’s status hinders it from contributing as fully as it could to the American economy as a whole.
Given that statehood entails a process, Congress would have a strong say in the “terms of admission, strategies to promote economic development, and decisions regarding Puerto Rico’s government revenue structure,” to ensure a positive fiscal impact on the whole of the country—as pointed out by an in-depth report from the Government Accountability Office. The GAO also rightly highlights that “statehood could eliminate any risk associated with Puerto Rico’s uncertain political status and any related deterrent to business investment.”
Contrast that to the current reality, where Puerto Rico’s territorial status means that the economic troubles it faces, including economic stagnation and massive debt, are ultimately a Congressional responsibility, an ongoing headache for lawmakers. Congress attempted to chart a course with 2016’s PROMESA legislation, but the debt restructuring is moving slowly and often not in a promising direction.
Support for welcoming the strategically and economically important territory as our 51st state is popular both on the mainland and on the island.
The people of Puerto Rico voted in 2017 for statehood with a strong level of support. More recent polls, perhaps with the issues laid bare in the wake of Hurricane Maria, also show the ongoing popularity of statehood on the island.
Support for statehood is also strong on the mainland. In 2019, Gallup found ‘two in three Americans (66%) favor admitting Puerto Rico,’ The Gallup analysis further stated that the results were “consistent with the 59% to 65% range of public support Gallup has recorded for Puerto Rico statehood since 1962.”
Some mainland statehood opponents promote the myth that statehood would mean installing members of Congress that will always be Democrats, an opinion that is ill-informed at best and cynical at worst. The fact is that Puerto Rican voters have regularly elected leaders who identify nationally as Republicans. As we’ve seen in our modern-day body politic, electoral slam dunks are growing more rare.
Republicans often express political concerns, but the evidence shows that the fear is misplaced. Stronger support for statehood has helped put Republicans over the top with voters on the mainland who care deeply about their already established American identity. The two Republican Senators from Florida support statehood and there is a large number of Republican Representatives from across the country who have co-sponsored bills to give Puerto Rico statehood.
That is far different from, say, the District of Columbia, which, if granted statehood, would most certainly exclusively elect Democrats for the foreseeable future. Some want to group the likely political results of Puerto Rican statehood and D.C. statehood together, but the two are politically very different.
Even partisans might be surprised that the Republican Party has long supported making Puerto Rico America’s 51st state. The current GOP platform fully embraces statehood, a notion that President Trump voiced on the 2016 campaign trail.
Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of Congress, and a Republican, was a critical driving force behind a legislative bill, introduced in October of last year, to create a process for statehood.
It would benefit the country for lawmakers to not let cooperative action on issues fade as the country heads to recovering from the pandemic’s damage. The legislation establishing a process for Puerto Rico statehood would ultimately result in a positive economic step for the country. Given the benefits and the significant support for statehood shows that there is no good reason for Congress to spend another century before acting.