One piece of legislation that is garnering interest is H.R. 2499, The Puerto Rico Democracy Act, introduced in May 2009 by Pedro Pierluisi (D.-Puerto Rico) and coming up for a vote before the House of Representatives next week.
The bill basically gives Puerto Ricans the chance to vote between retaining their current status or choosing a new status, to include Statehood. The text of the bill can be found here.
One of the many controversial issues of this bill is the issue of plebiscite as opposed to a constitutional convention. Roberto G. DePosada, writing for Roll Call, asks:
Why not have Congress authorize the commonwealth to elect delegates and hold a constitutional convention that would reflect Puerto Rico’s entire political spectrum? Then the convention could debate and reach a consensus for charting the island’s future to submit to Congress.The problem with the plebiscite is that it limits the options; the ballot is presented with an "either/or" choice. DePosada has concerns about Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party which he explains is pushing through bills in the Puerto Rican legislature that
...would require Puerto Ricans to vote on statehood again before the end of this year. This time, however, the PNP is leaving nothing to chance. To avoid the possibility that Puerto Ricans might choose to remain a commonwealth again, in Hugo Chavez fashion, they have removed that option from the ballot.
Instead voters will have only two choices: statehood or full independence. Commonwealth is not an option. As further insurance, Puerto Rico’s major opposition party, the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, is effectively barred from playing any role in the referendum.
Another contentious issue is that H.R 2499 would allow U.S. citizens born in Puerto Rico to participate in this plebiscite. So some guy living in New Jersey for the past 45 years who hasn't been to Puerto Rico since he was born could vote on this. Many of these people may or may not have a vested interest in what happens to their mother country.
So basically, what you have here is this. If Puerto Ricans vote with a simple majority to go for statehood (as many would likely do rather than choose independence), then the United States Congress will plunge headfirst into adding a 51st state. As stated above, DePosada reports that when the Puerto Ricans get their ballots, their only choices will be statehood or independence. Commonwealth would not be a choice and polls have shown that commonwealth is the preference of many Puerto Ricans:
Puerto Ricans have voted for "enhanced Commonwealth" - a status significantly different from the status quo - in two local plebiscites. The breakdown in these plebiscites was as follows: in 1967, 60.11% of the electorate voted for "enhanced Commonwealth," 37.78% voted for statehood, and 0.60% voted for independence. In 1993, 48.58% voted for "enhanced Commonwealth," 46.49% voted for statehood, and 2.54% voted for independence. In a third plebiscite, in 1998, the option that prevailed was "none of the above," with 50.3% of the vote. At that time, 46.49% of the voters chose statehood, 2.54% chose independence, 0.29% chose Free Association, and 0.06% chose Commonwealth status, which was defined as "territorial" rather than "enhanced."
Okay, so what's wrong with adding Puerto Rico as a state, anyway? Consider just the economics of it. Unemployment in Puerto Rico is about 16.5% and layoffs in the public sector continue. Bride of Rove wrote about health care on the island a few weeks ago. Not good.
One concern of DePosada is the congressional representation that statehood for Puerto Rico would bring. They would be entitled to two senators and six or seven representatives. How would they vote? Some contend that Puerto Rico would be the next red state. The people are strongly pro-family and have stood against gay marriage. However, DePosada is not convinced:
In addition to costing U.S. taxpayers more than $30 billion a year, we will be adopting a state where only 20 percent of its residents speak English, the per capita income is half of Mississippi’s (our poorest state) and the gun control laws are more stringent than any state in the U.S.
At RedState, Doc Hastings writes:
Puerto Rico has a population of four million people – as a state, they would receive two U.S. Senators and 6-7 House seats. But as long as there is 435 seat maximum in the House, if Puerto Rico receives 6 seats then other states expecting to gain a seat after the 2010 census would lose representation.
Hastings has many questions he'd like to see answered before this goes much further.
Michael Barone at the Washington Examiner is not convinced that Puerto Rico would go Democratic either:
Obviously House Democrats are motivated at least in part by crass political calculation: they figure that a state of Puerto Rico would elect two Democratic senators and five or six Democratic House members. That may not be quite true: the current Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño, is a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive party and identified as a Republican when he served as Resident Commissioner, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative, in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2005 to 2009.
Barone's problem with the statehood issue is that he's not convinced that a large enough majority wants this.
In February,The Washington Times published an editorial against statehood.
To be sure, if Congress passes this bill and the Puerto Rican (and former Puerto Rican) voters choose the statehood option, Congress still would control the ultimate decision to make the island a state. But the thought is that if Puerto Rico sends a full delegation claiming official status and the (false) legitimacy of a (tainted) popular vote, a Democrat-majority Congress would seat the delegation in an instant.
From the standpoint of the rest of us mainlanders, major problems present themselves. Most important, Puerto Rico does not consider English its sole official language of government, and islanders predominantly speak Spanish. No non-official-English state has ever joined the union, and for good reason. As Canada's experience shows, official bilingualism almost inevitably leads to discord and balkanization.
So, the pros and cons are stacking up. That the Democratic congress is so gung-ho for this makes me nervous, but the bill has a great deal of bi-partisan support.
The entire issue merits a good strong look.
Related post at Potluck.
Update: Professor Jacobson kindly links and posts on a rising conservative star from Puerto Rico. Check it out.