by Rod D. Martin
February 27, 1998

President Clinton, soundly defeated this week by that most fearsome of foreign powers Kofi Annan, discovered in the aftermath that Tailgate had not gone away. Unfortunately for all of us, the Puerto Rico statehood bill remained concealed.

Wednesday, March 4th, the House of Representatives votes on an especially pernicious bill designed to make the aforementioned Caribbean commonwealth the 51st state. If passed, a Senate vote, not yet scheduled, will likely follow quickly, and the President simply can’t wait to sign. Wise citizens will lobby feverishly against this most foolish of moves.

In brief, the legislation under consideration gives Puerto Rican voters the option of continuing their current status as a commonwealth (whereby they have U.S. citizenship, but no income taxes and thus no vote in national elections), seeking independence, or becoming a state. This would be the second such referendum in just five years; and the bill requires repeated referenda every ten years until statehood or independence is selected.

The procedures the bill’s authors have employed are unique in the history of statehood debates and effectively cede all power to the Puerto Ricans. Upon approval of a statehood referendum, H.R. 856 requires strict timetables for the Congressional committee in charge of the actual statehood-transition legislation. If the committee does not take action within 120 days, the final statehood bill goes directly to the House floor. In addition, H.R. 856 limits the debate time on future statehood-transition legislation to no more than 4 hours in the House and 25 hours in the Senate. No Senator will be allowed to filibuster, and amendments will be severely limited. In effect, the bill makes a legally binding promise of statehood.

To say that all of this is problematic is the height of understatement.

The most obvious issue is that H.R. 856 admits a 51st state whose people don’t speak English, don’t intend to learn it, and are even antagonistic to the idea. At least three-fourths of Puerto Ricans don’t speak or understand English, and fully 90% of the island’s 650,000 public school students lack basic English skills upon graduation. Making Puerto Rico a state would transform America overnight into a bilingual nation. A quick look at Canada demonstrates how wonderfully successful such experiments have proved.

To make matters worse, only a simple majority of Puerto Rican voters is required for statehood. In the 1993 referendum, 48.6 percent voted to continue commonwealth status, 46.3 percent for statehood, and 4 percent voted for independence. Now a one vote majority for statehood would commit us. This is as close a duplication of Quebec as you will ever see: it makes possible a new state in which 49.9 percent are opposed. And just as in Quebec, this will likely lead to all sorts of mischief in pursuit of a high-stakes game of “holding together the Union.”

Some say that secession is impossible because of the Civil War. Think again. America just spent the past eighty years pushing for the dismantling of empires and supporting the right of self-determination, be it in the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the Soviet Union. If you think America can backtrack now, unlike the President you did inhale.

As if that weren’t enough, the small but militant Puerto Rican independence faction is by no means likely to acquiesce in being outvoted in a democratic election. A Puerto Rican nationalist, quoted in the New York Times Magazine in 1990, said, “Statehood will mean war.” Perhaps this is just rhetoric; but if we’re going to risk a Northern Ireland — or a Chiapas — spilling out onto the streets of San Juan and New York, shouldn’t we at least conduct a national debate?

More “mundane” matters are no less discouraging. With an average income less than half that of our poorest state, a population two-thirds of which lives below the federal poverty line, and an unemployment rate around 15 percent, Puerto Rico, newly armed with statehood and a full Congressional delegation, cannot help but prove a money pit. The General Accounting Office has calculated that statehood could mean as much as $4 billion more flowing out from the U.S. Treasury into Puerto Rico. Congress is currently free to cap welfare, food stamps, and other federal programs for the Commonwealth, but statehood would immediately entitle two-thirds of Puerto Ricans to between $300 and $400 more a month in federal welfare payments.

To top it off, if Puerto Rico becomes a state, it will receive seven to eight representatives in Congress and two U.S. Senators, more Congressional representation than 30 of our 50 states. According to the Congressional Research Service, the most likely states to “give” at least one seat to Puerto Rico are Florida, Washington, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Mississippi. Most likely, their voters don’t know this. And as in a D.C. statehood bill, over which the President would also lick his chops, every one of these new Representatives and Senators would be a liberal Democrat. If you think conservatives are having problems now, just wait.

Action is called for. Call your Congressman and Senators, toll free, at 1-800-522-6721. Do not assume that good conservatives are against this bill: many, including a majority of the House leadership, have co-sponsored it. When you call, make your point clear: haphazardly handing Congressional seats to the Democratic Party, raising America’s tax bill, fundamentally altering historic American culture, and possibly taking us down the road of Quebec and Northern Ireland deserves consideration by more than a few Washington insiders. Americans — all of us — need and deserve time to think this through.