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We the People: Why stop at 50? Puerto Rico, D.C. could become states under proposals in Congress

The Puerto Rican flag flies in front of Puerto Rico's Capitol, San Juan, on July 29, 2015.  (Ricardo Arduengo/Associated Pres)
The Puerto Rican flag flies in front of Puerto Rico's Capitol, San Juan, on July 29, 2015. (Ricardo Arduengo/Associated Pres)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Why does the flag have 50 stars?

WASHINGTON – 1898 was a big year for the imperial ambitions of the United States.

That summer, the U.S. annexed the Hawaiian Islands, and before year’s end, the country had seized control of Puerto Rico when the Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War.

Sixty-one years later, Hawaii became the 50th state – Alaska had been admitted to the union just months earlier – and as required by federal law, the American flag was updated to include the now-familiar 50 stars.

Sure, it’s a nice, round number, but now some in Congress are asking: Why stop at 50?

Last year, the Democratic-majority House of Representatives passed a bill that would make the District of Columbia the 51st state, and later this month a House committee will hold a hearing to consider two competing proposals to resolve the long-simmering question of Puerto Rico’s political status, with statehood as one option.

In a 2016 nonbinding referendum, 86% of D.C. residents voted in favor of statehood. Similar votes in 2012, 2017 and 2020 have shown many Puerto Ricans favor statehood, although the island’s residents are divided over supporting statehood, independence or maintaining the status quo.

But the status of Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., is not up to the roughly 700,000 D.C. residents and more than 3 million residents of Puerto Rico, each with just a single, nonvoting delegate in the House and no representation in the Senate. Instead, their fate lies with Congress, where the prospect of adding members to the evenly divided Senate has little hope of escaping fierce partisanship.

At first, the U.S. government wasn’t sure what to call the lands it had seized from Spain in 1898, which included the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. In 1901, the Supreme Court ruled that Puerto Rico was a territory – “belonging to the United States, but not a part of the United States” – that was “inhabited by alien races” whose culture was incompatible with “Anglo-Saxon principles.”

Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917, and when the U.S. entered World War I a month later, more than 18,000 Puerto Ricans served in the nation’s military. The island officially became a commonwealth and adopted a new constitution in 1952, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that Puerto Rico does not have the same sovereignty as states and tribes.

“Puerto Rico has a long political and economic relationship with the United States, but it continues to be a colony,” said Noralis Rodriguez-Coss, an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Gonzaga University. “Even though, for many Puerto Ricans, the idea of being associated with the United States was understood as a link that would make them part of the ‘First World.’ ”

After Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, Rodriguez-Coss said, that image was shattered for many Puerto Ricans, who felt the U.S. government treated the territory like a Third World country. In a 2020 report, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found delays and mismanagement prevented aid from reaching Puerto Rico when it was needed after the storm.

Before the hurricane, a different kind of storm battered Puerto Rico. Congress created tax incentives in 1976 to attract investment to the island, but when federal lawmakers phased them out in 2006, businesses left and threw Puerto Rico’s economy into a recession.

The island’s growing debt, made worse by the global economic crisis of the late 2000s, was packaged in tax-exempt bonds due to a quirk of the federal tax code and bought up by hedge funds and other investors.

Unlike states, federal laws didn’t let Puerto Rico’s government declare bankruptcy, and in 2016 Congress passed the PROMESA Act, establishing a financial oversight board charged with restructuring the territory’s debt. The result has been rising taxes and benefit cuts while more than 43% of the island’s residents live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau, more than twice the rate of the poorest state.

“These guys got screwed on the economic thing, big time, and the debt structure,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. “There are financial interests on Wall Street that got served, not the interests of U.S. taxpayers.

“Our relation with Puerto Rico, as it is structured now, hamstrings the growth and opportunities for Puerto Rico.”

The economic crisis in Puerto Rico has changed the debate on the island around Puerto Rico’s political status, Rodriguez-Coss said. It has long been defined by a fight between the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party and the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which advocates for independence from the United States.

“My parents and their parents, all they know is the commonwealth,” said Rodriguez-Coss, who grew up in Puerto Rico. “There’s a long history of commonwealth status and of believing that the United States really does something for the island’s economic stability, even though the economy right now is a mess.

“For the majority in the older generation, the idea to vote for their political status is highly linked to partisanship. For younger generations, they have seen a different side of Puerto Rico in which they don’t find a job and many are forced to leave. So for many of this generation, what we are seeing is a conversation around decolonization, around why the distribution of resources is not equal on the island as it is in the states.”

That conversation has made its way to Congress. On March 2, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would let Puerto Rican voters choose to be admitted as a state. Two weeks later, a trio of Democrats introduced another bill that would establish a convention for elected representatives to decide Puerto Rico’s status.

The District of Columbia was founded in 1790 when Maryland and Virginia ceded a combined 100 square miles of land at the junction of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers to be the home of a new national capital. Those who lived there, no longer residents of a state, lost their ability to elect representatives.

Virginia took back its part of the land in 1846, partly due to frustration among residents who lost their representation in Congress and even their ability to elect a mayor. Only in 1973 did Congress give D.C. residents the right to elect their own mayor and city council, and federal lawmakers still have the power to overturn any D.C. law.

Now, momentum to grant statehood to D.C. is building among Democrats in Congress, who say the capital city’s status is a question of justice.

“There are more than 700,000 American citizens in the District of Columbia who don’t have representation in Congress,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement. “That’s got to change, and I was proud to help introduce a bill earlier this year that would make D.C. a state and grant these citizens that long-overdue representation.”

But Republicans universally oppose statehood for the overwhelmingly Democratic-voting district, which they call a cynical ploy by Democrats to gain an advantage in the Senate. While the House’s 435 seats are distributed roughly based on population, each state is represented by two senators.

“I oppose D.C. statehood,” said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. “The U.S. Constitution provides for a ‘federal district’ distinct from the states to serve as the permanent seat of the federal government. The District of Columbia was intended by the Constitution to be governed directly by the federal legislature to ensure the nation’s capital is not subject to political pressure from state or local government.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from the 5th district, also took issue with the process Democrats are seeking to use to make D.C. a state. While the Constitution calls for a nonvoting “seat of government,” the Democrats’ legislation would simply shrink the national capital and let most of the district become a state.

“The process that is playing out right now is not what the Founders outlined for us in the Constitution,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “The Justice Department under both Democratic and Republican administrations has consistently agreed that statehood for the District requires a constitutional amendment, and it cannot be done by a simple majority vote in Congress.”

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said he would support a competing proposal that would see D.C. rejoin Maryland, much as the other part of the original district rejoined Virginia in 1846.

“Everybody in America can live where they want to, and they’ve chosen to live in Washington, D.C.,” Risch said. “If you’re truly worried about these people not voting, then what you do is give it to Maryland.”

The case of Puerto Rico is less clearly defined along partisan lines, both in Congress and on the island.

The GOP’s official 2016 platform supported statehood for Puerto Rico, but former President Donald Trump said he was an “absolute no” on statehood for the island in 2018.

Republicans who represent the Inland Northwest illustrate the divide within the GOP over Puerto Rico’s status. McMorris Rodgers said in a statement she supports Puerto Ricans’ efforts at self-determination.

“Puerto Rico is certainly within its rights to hold an organizing convention to request statehood or independence from the United States,” McMorris Rodgers said. “Puerto Rico has long been a contributing partner to our nation as a territory, and I fully support their efforts to follow the process in order to pursue what they believe is best.”

Risch said in an interview he opposes statehood for Puerto Rico, which he sees as fundamentally different from Hawaii despite the shared history of the two island territories.

“Hawaii is much more like a state,” Risch said. “It’s set up with the kind of free-market, free-enterprise, nonsocialist leanings that other countries have. Puerto Rico is certainly in a different category. The culture is just different than any of our individual states.”

During the Cold War, the U.S. government used Puerto Rico as a sort of capitalist counterpoint to Cuba in the Caribbean, building Burger Kings and suburban housing developments.

While residents of the island don’t pay federal income taxes, they do pay other federal taxes. They qualify for benefits like Medicaid at a reduced rate and are denied other benefits altogether. The Supreme Court agreed in March to hear a case involving a Puerto Rican man who was sued by the federal government for collecting Supplemental Security Insurance payments after he moved back to the island to care for his ailing wife, despite working for 28 years in New York.

Puerto Rico does receive more federal money than it contributes in federal taxes, but that’s also the case for 42 of the 50 states – including Idaho and Washington – according to 2019 data from the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York.

Still, the island has struggled to shake the perception among many on the mainland that its residents are a drain on federal resources. Rodriguez-Coss said Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party has sought to align itself in the past decade with the Republican Party, perhaps in part to foster bipartisan support in Congress for statehood.

“By being closer and more attractive to conservative parties in the United States, they are closer to money and closer to those who would be harder to convince,” she said. “Because there’s a perception about Puerto Rico being socialist, the government is saying, ‘No, look, we are conservative, we are Christians.’ ”

Cantwell said it’s time for the United States to rethink its priorities in Puerto Rico, which the country seized at a time when controlling the seas was seen as critical for the country’s expansion.

“Our original interest had been naval interests and other economic things,” Cantwell said. “Well, that’s changed, so we should be thinking, what’s best for the taxpayers and to empower Puerto Rico to lead on their own economic strategy and feel empowered to do so? That’s going to give all of us the best return.”


Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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