The argument for Puerto Rican statehood, at least as far as its proponents in the 117th Congress are concerned, is twofold: First, it gives the Democrats a senator. Second, it gives the Democrats another senator.
For Puerto Ricans, the argument is a bit more nuanced. For Democrats who want to take it up, it’s little more than that. Felicitously, now that the Democrats control both houses of Congress and the presidency, both Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., are suddenly ready to be admitted to the union as states. What luck!
The District of Columbia has its own issues, but the workplace counter that ticks off the years in which Puerto Rico hasn’t been plagued by massive political turmoil caused by structural ineptitude at the governmental level has been reliably stuck at zero. Last year was no exception, as protests broke out on the island after a citizen journalist posted a video of supplies from 2017’s Hurricane Maria rotting in a warehouse.
Well, it’s a new year. Puerto Rico has a relatively new governor — Pedro Pierluisi, elected last November. Puerto Ricans also voted for statehood, albeit by a thin margin, over independence. That means they’ll be delivering their request to be admitted to Congress, although Congress doesn’t necessarily have to take it up.
Regardless, Pierluisi fully expects the request to be delivered in the very near future.
In an interview with “Axios on HBO” that aired Sunday, Pierluisi said he expects a bill to be introduced in the House of Representatives that would make Puerto Rico a state by mid-March, telling interviewers that “Congress is morally obligated to respond” to the territory’s 52 percent to 47 percent vote in favor of admittance to the union.
“Statehood is not a panacea,” Pierluisi said. “Of course we have to do better. But there’s no question that having two senators and four representatives in Congress batting for us when needed would make a difference.”
When he says “do better,” there are a lot of things he’s talking about.
There are the frequent political upheavals, one which led to the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019. (The spate of protests last year didn’t lead to the resignation of the governor — so progress, right?) There’s the island’s mishandling of several natural disasters, including Hurricane Maria and an earthquake last year which left many without power and living outside for months. And then there’s the fact Puerto Rico has been in bankruptcy since 2017.
Last February, Puerto Rico unveiled a plan to restructure $35 billion in bond and claims debt and $50 billion in public pension debt while aiming to exit bankruptcy by the end of 2020, according to Reuters.
Then 2020 happened.
The past year can’t necessarily be held against the island’s government, although Puerto Rico’s political mismanagement remains every bit an issue four years on from the island declaring bankruptcy. In fact, one of the key reasons behind the statehood push, Axios reported, is that Puerto Rico isn’t able to declare bankruptcy the way other states and jurisdictions in the union can. Becoming the 51st (or 52nd) state could allow them to discharge $72 billion in debt.
That might make Puerto Rico statehood seem like a risky proposition, particularly because some of its biggest creditors aren’t happy with the situation as it is.
So what’s Pierluisi’s pitch? “The U.S. could be expanding by admitting Puerto Rico into the union,” he said. “It would be telling the world that it is embracing diversity because this would be a truly, completely Hispanic state.”
However, when he talked about representation, he was getting to the heart of the matter: While he said that the island’s senators and representatives would be “mixed,” he conceded that the delegation “would probably lean Democratic.”
And — this will shock and amaze you — Pierluisi also believes D.C. should be admitted.
“I don’t want to compete with D.C. I’m all for D.C. statehood,” Pierluisi said. “So I just want the star [on the American flag]. I don’t care about the number. So long as it happens and it happens soon, I’ll be more than pleased.”
Of course. Keep in mind D.C.’s case is actually far worse than Puerto Rico’s; the District is unusually dependent on the federal government for its very existence, it would be far smaller than any other state and has almost no other industry besides governance. It’s a company town that makes nothing.
Perhaps it’s that Pierluisi finds common cause with the District of Columbia because both have an uphill battle to attain statehood. I get the feeling something else is involved, however.
Any bill that deals with statehood for either entity will almost certainly pass the House and almost certainly fail in the Senate if the filibuster holds. That’s a very big if; while two Democratic senators have promised to uphold the filibuster (Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona), four likely Democratic seats in the Senate could be the one issue that sways them.
In that case, keep in mind these four votes come at a heavy price. In Puerto Rico’s case, we’ve essentially cosigned the island’s semi-permanent political chaos without any particular resolution in sight. Don’t expect them to be motivated to find one. But at least we’d be “embracing diversity because this would be a truly, completely Hispanic state.”
In the meantime, we can also be rest assured that if Puerto Rico gets statehood, D.C. will get it, too.
Does it matter that it’s a ward of the federal government, unable to support itself? Obviously not. The argument for D.C. statehood is twofold, the same way Puerto Rico’s is.
Neither argument is very good, but you can see how both of them could be very convincing to power-hungry Democrats.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.