What Congress Should Demand of Puerto Rico for Statehood
Fiscal Sustainability, Full Bilingualism Must Prevail
Republicans and Democrats have always promised to support Puerto Rican statehood if the people of Puerto Rico voted for that option. Last Sunday they did, and now Congress will have to respond in some way to the inevitable petition and actions to follow.
Those promises, however, were just quick soundbites to give to the press. They didn’t necessarily represent the true beliefs or wishes of the members or their parties.
Conservatives will be hard pressed to hold the support of their membership while allowing a very progressive territory to become a state, virtually guaranteeing additional (and permanent) hard-line Democrat seats in both chambers. Party faithful will also hammer them for allowing a fiscally dysfunctional state into the union.
Democrats can then play both sides of this issue. First, they will blame Republicans for Puerto Rico’s fiscal problems, which are far more severe than those of the states. They will also encourage Puerto Rico statehood so there is a precedent for the federal government to bail out financially troubled states (many of which are Democrat controlled).
There is a way for the Republican majority to save face, while admitting Puerto Rico as a state. The GOP will have to put conditions on Puerto Rican statehood.
Congress can establish whatever conditions it wants for Puerto Rico to be admitted, including a second vote. When Utah entered the union, one of the requirements was for that the former territory ban polygamy. While not practiced by all Mormons, many considered it a deeply important religious practice. That begs the question, what conditions will congress set? Perhaps more important, what conditions should congress set for Puerto Rico to become a state.
The obvious answer is two:
First, Congress should require Puerto Rico to get its fiscal house in order by balancing the budget and fulfilling financial obligations. That way the other states are not required to bail out the 51st state. A stronger balanced-budget clause should be added to the Puerto Rico Constitution. Puerto Rico should pay its debts and bring the size of government down to a level that will better guarantee the commonwealth won’t find itself in the same mess 10 years from now.
Second, and perhaps more complicated, Congress should require Puerto Rico to improve the position and use of the English language within its jurisdiction. English and Spanish are already both official languages of the territory, but policy and practice are often two different things. While many Spanish speakers have successfully waged a battle to get government documents and services in their native tongue on the mainland, English-only speakers visiting Puerto Rico can be hard pressed to get service in English at many government offices.
The island’s only English-language radio station, WOSO Radio (my former employer), closed its doors several years ago due to low ad revenues and high operating costs. The only English-language newspaper, the San Juan Star, went out of business and its replacement is, well, not very successful.
Speaking English at a government office can sometimes get you worse service or none at all. Underneath the rejection of English and English speakers is a not so latent anti-American current that threatens to derail any attempt at statehood.
Anti-statehood forces will exploit both these issues to try to stop progress. Congress should move forward and resolve the Puerto Rico status issue once and for all, but it should do so with its eyes wide open and conditions that make sense both for the island and the rest of the United States.
Frank Worley-López is a retired member of the Army Corps of Engineers and a former public-relations specialist. He founded the Republican Independence Movement for Puerto Rico (MIRE) and was cofounder of the Puerto Rico Libertarian Party. Follow @FrankWorleyPR.