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  • Gabriel E. Aviles Rivera

The Argument for Statehood: Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia

"The Constitution of the United States was made not merely for the generation that then existed, but for posterity- unlimited, undefined, endless, perpetual posterity." - Henry Clay

These are the stories of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia and their path to statehood. On one hand we have the District of Columbia. It was a fruit of the decisive debate between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in which they agreed to place the capital in the slavery-friendly south in exchange for the government to assume all of the Revolutionary War debt. Originally, it was supposed to be a square divided between Maryland and Virginia but ended up taking 68.34 square miles of Maryland. After the Civil War, the city grew exponentially in population. Later, in 1964 residents of DC were allowed to vote for the president and have a non-voting member in the House of Representatives and a shadow senator.

On the other hand, there is Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico was discovered by the Spanish in the late 1400s and was under their control until 1898 when they recognized Puerto Rico as an autonomy of Spain. This autonomy didn’t last long due to the Spanish-American War, in which Puerto Rico was gifted to the United States of America in the Treaty of Paris. In 1900, the Foraker Act was approved and that gave Puerto Rico the structure needed to create a bicameral chamber. In 1917, the Jones Act was approved, giving Puerto Ricans US citizenship.

From 1898 to 1946 Puerto Rico was governed by mainland Americans. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman gave Puerto Rico it’s first Puerto Rican governor. This man was Jesús T. Piñero. In 1948, Luis Muñoz Marín was elected governor by the residents of Puerto Rico. Later, In 1952 the “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico” was created. This was the vehicle that promoted the transition of Puerto Rico from an agricultural country into an industrialized state just like the ones in the Union. This commonwealth status allows Puerto Rico to have its own tax code, which it used to its advantage by luring in subsidiaries from lucrative American businesses. In order to become a state, Puerto Rico eliminated such incentives. Puerto Rico developed and prospered but in the early 2000’s the local government had racked up billions in debt and decided to raise taxes. This, coupled with divestment, enticed the massive exodus of Puerto Ricans to the mainland in search of benefits. Puerto Ricans do not receive the same benefits as other US citizens. If Puerto Rico were to become a state, it’s three million US citizens would be fully represented in the U.S. Legislature and have full participation in the democratic process. Currently, the residents of the island deal with great inequities in Medicaid, family tax credits and other federal programs like the D-SNAP, which is a special food stamp program for disaster victims.

Those who oppose statehood make arguments on the basis of the preservation of culture. To this one can say that cultures evolve over time and that the American union greatly benefits from cultural diversity. Texans still remain proudly Texan; the residents of California are proudly Californian, and the people in Hawaii still commemorate their traditions. Another argument against statehood is partisan, as opponents argue that it would tip the balance in Congress further left. However, it must not be overlooked that Puerto Rico is still a religious, conservative territory where the Catholic Church reigned supreme for more than four centuries.

As for Washington DC, some argue against its statehood on the basis that it would be inefficient and expensive. The federal government absorbs over $270 million dollars solely on running DC’s court system. If statehood were to take place DC residents would have to pay for the court system and other public services themselves, that in the end could offset the benefits of becoming a state. Additionally, many oppose DC’s statehood on the basis that it would be unconstitutional. DC’s statehood would be violating the Constitution’s Article 1, Section 8 and the 23rd Amendment.

Throughout the Union, there is support for both of these additions with ⅔ of the U.S. favoring Puerto Rico’s statehood and the Democratic Party pushing DC’s statehood. The real battle here is defending the federal republic the United States is. The District was created so that our federal government could have a place where it could operate without the intrusion of local governments. If the District became a state, the federal government would be subdued to the powers of the new local government. Moreover, the Constitution would need amendment in order for Washington D.C. to become a state. The probability of that happening is minimal due to the onerous amendment process.

Puerto Rico’s addition to the union would greatly highlight the power and magnificence of our Constitution and its federal powers. The diversity of this country's birth must be remembered. The country had Puritans in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Catholics in Maryland, and Anglicans in the south. In addition, the United States had Germans, Englishmen, French, Dutch and even Spaniards throughout its history of its growth. The federal government was able to maintain this country together even when multiple groups clashed.

Multiple bills have been introduced in Congress for the statehood of Puerto Rico and D.C., but most of them never make it pass the house. These bills include Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act sponsored by New York Democrat Rep. Jose Serrano and Washington, D.C. Admission Act sponsored by D.C. Democrat Rep. Eleanor Norton. The ultimate fate of each territory will rest on Constitutional interpretation and constituent will, two things constantly in flux. Time will thus be the ultimate determinant.

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