A large part of the recent Democratic Party agenda is granting statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. This topic has received increasing notoriety because of threats from the left in response to President Trump's nomination of a justice to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, about "packing the court" of left-wing justices by using the presumed Democrat votes from D.C. and Puerto Rico to do so.
This is presumptuous considering the recent endorsement of President Trump by Puerto Rican Gov. Wanda Vasquez. The greater issue of statehood raises questions as to why these two American jurisdictions have not yet achieved statehood – and why Congress has been unlikely to entertain these movements to date.
To understand this well, it is important to recognize that these two places are not alike in almost any way.
Washington, D.C. is a federal district that was granted home rule [to become a city] in 1973. In 1974, control over the 68 square mile city was shifted from Congress to a locally elected mayor and 13 council members who took control of city services like the metropolitan police and fire departments, school district and department of public works.
Despite regular rhetoric from D.C. leaders about the need for local control, the District has never attempted to establish its own locally-elected judiciary or sheriff's department. Furthermore, despite the fact that D.C. has an elected mayor and council, Congress has taken the place of the oversight that most cities get from state governments.
In D.C., the local government can get funds from a congressional subcommittee in the way other mayors have to petition state legislatures for. As such, Congress can review bills passed by the D.C. council and can prevent them from taking effect even if they were passed with a large majority, mainly because of the extremely large amount of federal, military and monument properties in the city.
While D.C.'s local leaders have a long history of complaints regarding Congress' involvement in city affairs, there are very few mayors in America who wouldn't jump at the chance to get their funds directly from a Congress looking to make the city they spend half their time in a nicer place to be.
Puerto Rico's history has a far more traditional background relative to other territories that became states. Following the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States in 1898, when it became an unincorporated territory of the U.S. with commonwealth status. Two years later, Congress enacted the Foraker Act, establishing a civil government in the territory and by 1917, all Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship.
Unlike D.C., Puerto Rico already has state and municipal governments that have their own constitution, but are also covered under the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution which states: "Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States."
To become a state, both places would have to pass an act of Congress, under the power granted to Congress by the United States Constitution to admit new states to the Union.
This is far more unlikely for D.C., as if statehood were to pass, Congress would not only lose authority over the city; but would have to grant seats in Congress and the Senate for a jurisdiction that makes Rhode Island look vast.
Despite House Democrats passing a bill in June that would make D.C. a state in June, Congress last voted on D.C. statehood in November 1993 and the proposal was defeated by a vote of 277 to 153. Further, like the issue of retrocession, opponents argue that statehood would violate the District Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and erode the principle of a separate federal district as the seat of government. D.C. statehood could therefore require a constitutional amendment. This makes the prospect of D.C. statehood extremely unlikely to pass in the Senate.
In Puerto Rico, five referendums have been held on statehood, most recently in 2017. In contrast to D.C., Puerto Rico's population is over 3 million people: larger than that of 21 states. The last statehood referendum held in 2017 only had a Puerto Rican voter turnout of 23%, which was viewed historically as a failure in a territory where voting turnout normally averages 80%.
Of the small number of voters who participated, 97.18% chose statehood, 1.50% favored independence and 1.32% chose to maintain the commonwealth status. In June 2018, Representative Commissioner Jenniffer González (R-Puerto Rico) introduced a bill that would pave the way for Puerto Rico to become a state in 2021; but her bill was not acted upon after introduction by the Pelosi-controlled Congress.
Then there's the elephant in the room – which has been the ability to work with and trust locally elected leaders elected from D.C. and Puerto Rico's political machines. Regardless of how "No Taxation Without Representation" is embossed on D.C.'s license plates, the city is regularly marred with corruption scandals throughout it’s short municipal history – despite the fact that they get more federal funding than any local jurisdiction in America.
Puerto Rico is currently facing massive corruption probes regarding the waste and theft of hurricane relief funds, which is bad but even worse considering that the administration’s immediate predecessors.
Then there's the local governments' record of management. Puerto Rico's aging critical infrastructure was the focus of great national scrutiny following the devastation of Hurricane Maria. In D.C., the huge disparity in the quality of life for working-class people living in the city vs. those wealthy enough to reside in areas where the federal government has concurrent police jurisdiction, street and park maintenance speaks volumes as to how inefficient and mismanaged municipal government is.
Then there's the issue of crime. Since achieving home rule, D.C. has been in the top 10 American violent crimes (No. 1 in the early '90s) – which makes no sense when you account for the fact that D.C. is one of the most heavily-policed cities in America, with over five local law enforcement agencies and roughly a dozen uniformed federal police agencies policing the 68-mile city.
It's also noteworthy that despite its high crime rate and total lack of bipartisan checks and balances in local government, D.C. has America's least progressive criminal justice reform record. Puerto Rico has also had challenges with crime, with the highest line-of-duty law enforcement death rate in America and recent battles with drug crime.
The statehood-as-retribution argument posed by Congress in response to President Trump's move to fill Justice Ginsburg's seat highlights two issues that don't reflect well for house Democrats. An assumption that statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico are automatic Democratic votes is not pre-determined. This assumption borders on offensive when some arguments from left-wing pundits conflate the statehood argument with D.C. and Puerto Rico's racial majorities.
The truth is, as D.C.'s home rule act passed in 1973, it has always been associated with the civil rights movement. As a result, D..C's local politics have always had a "protest vote" element in play. As a result, D.C. has never had a Republican mayor or true opposition vote on counsel – so Nancy Pelosi's assumption that D.C. statehood would benefit Democrats is valid.
In a stark contrast, Puerto Ricans are heavily Catholic, join the military in high numbers and consistently vote Republican for their Congressional representatives. As seen in the 2016 election, the racially insensitive belief that all Latino voters would support Democrat candidates because of their open-borders policy does not apply to Caribbean and South American Latino votes, nor many Texans of Mexican decent. Therefore, if Puerto Rico, with three times D.C.'s population – were to become a state, Republicans can make a valid play for it.
The other issue is the historic, practical view in the minds of many on Capitol Hill. As an analogy, if a family member regularly borrowed money from you, then wasted or lost it – would you make them a partner in your business? Of course not. With the corruption, mismanagement and crime concerns highlighted in this piece, it would be natural for those voting on the issue to have concerns with passing a law that gives those "family members" more responsibility and power.
A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his two and a half decade career on both sides the criminal justice system. Mannes served in both federal and municipal law enforcement in though the 9/11 attacks, D.C.-area sniper task force, homeland security exercises and natural disasters. Mannes' work in D.C. led to personal encounters with the D.C.'s unlawful personnel actions, unconstitutional gun laws and criminal justice inequalities, which led him to become an advocate for public integrity. Thereafter, Mannes served for nearly nine years as the Director, Office of Investigations for North America's largest medical board, as a Chief Compliance Officer, consultant, expert witness, nonprofit board member and political adviser. Read A. Benjamin Mannes' Reports — More Here.
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