Opposition to statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia has become orthodoxy for some Republican lawmakers. Sen. Mike Lee, for instance, warned voters ahead of last November’s election that statehood for Puerto Rico and D.C. would result in four additional Democratic seats in the United States Senate.
That misguided apprehension, however, squares with neither political reality nor the Constitution’s original meaning. And, given the current momentum for D.C. statehood on Capitol Hill, it may also undermine Lee’s wish to maintain the Senate’s current partisan balance.
First, the assumption that Puerto Rico and D.C. statehood would bring four new Democrats to the Senate is misinformed. Yes, D.C. voters would almost certainly elect Democratic senators; but the idea that Puerto Rico voters would likewise elect Democratic senators is a myth. Puerto Rico is overwhelmingly Latino, which doesn’t augur well for Democrats, whose appeal among Latino voters is tenuous and slipping.
Moreover, Puerto Rico voters recently reelected Republican Jenniffer González-Colón to represent them in Congress. González-Colón, who led the Latinos for Trump coalition, is a GOP rising star and a principled conservative. She would be a frontrunner for a Senate seat if Puerto Rico were a state, as would other Republicans like her. It’s no surprise that former Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, who served with González-Colón and knows island politics, endorsed statehood for Puerto Rico.
Second, indefinite territorial status is incompatible with the framers’ intent. Indeed, Utah’s own statehood journey illustrates that very contradiction: Utahns first petitioned Congress for statehood in 1849, but Congress withheld admission for 47 years. Like Puerto Ricans today, Utah had no voting representation in Congress during that consequential period in American history. And, as with all territories, Congress reserved the authority to legislate for Utah notwithstanding local wishes. That, of course, went against America’s foundational principle: that a government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed.
America’s founders intended for territorial government to be temporary and followed by statehood. In 1787, as delegates drafted and debated the Constitution of the United States, national policymakers organized a territorial government for the region northwest of the Ohio River (modern-day Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin). Two years later, Congress — which then included several former delegates to the Constitutional Convention — reorganized the territory in conformity with the newly ratified Constitution. In doing so, they reaffirmed their commitment to temporary territorial government and eventual statehood. They had suffered under the yoke of colonialism and had no interest in adopting it themselves.
Finally, opposing Puerto Rico statehood for the sake of maintaining the Senate’s partisan balance ignores prevailing political trends. Last year, the House of Representatives voted for D.C. statehood. This year, nearly half of all House members have already cosponsored the D.C. statehood bill, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi has once again promised to bring the bill to the floor, where it’s all but certain to pass. More importantly, D.C. statehood enjoys comparable and growing support in the Senate. And with Democrats now controlling the White House, supporters of D.C. statehood are more optimistic than ever.
Republicans looking to counterbalance D.C.’s Democratic senators would be wise to rally behind statehood for a territory whose values and political makeup more closely resembles their own: Puerto Rico. Far from disrupting the Senate’s balance of power, Puerto Rico statehood would likely preserve it. More so, it would reject the morally reprehensible and constitutionally corrupt practice of colonialism and would reaffirm America’s commitment to representative democracy.
And that’s something that Democrats and Republicans alike should stand for.
Scott A. Olson is a writer, a political partner of the Truman National Security Project, and an expert on the history of U.S. policy in the territories. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_A_Olson. José A. Cabrera is an attorney, U.S. Army veteran, and co-chairman of the Puerto Rico Young Republican Federation. Follow him on Twitter @CabreraCostas.