KEVIN LEVY, PUSHING FORWARD
The Founders of the United States of America weren’t Americans – not originally at least. As a young man, George Washington served as a British Army Officer fighting in the French and Indian Wars. John Adams was a British attorney who represented the soldiers who participated in the infamous Boston Massacre. Thomas Paine of Common Sense fame was actually born in England. Yet these Founding Fathers, in their adulthood, were denied the right to participate in their government. Their frustrations with the British Crown inspired them to seek sovereignty for themselves and their new adopted nation.
“No Taxation Without Representation” was one of their battle cries. Although the Founders gave much in terms of their time and service to the British Empire, they were not afforded the same representation as their English, Scottish, and Welsh compatriots. Tensions grew to a breaking point when delegates from across Colonial America wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence, formally sparking the American War for Independence.
Today, millions of American citizens live across several United States territories and the District of Columbia without any voting representation in Congress and without the ability to vote for the President of the United States. Recently, Puerto Rico voted overwhelmingly (albeit with record low turnout) to join the United States as the 51st State. Washington DC held a similar referendum in 2016 in which over 85% of the voting population voted for statehood as New Columbia.
Washingtonians and Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and it’s time they got the respect that they deserve. The main opposition to adding these regions as states is that it would upset the balance of power in Washington. If admitted to the Union, Puerto Rico might send two Democratic Senators and several Democratic Representatives. Washington would send another two Democratic Senators and at least one Democratic Representative to Congress. Because the decision of admission of new states is left to Congress, a political solution is required to add Puerto Rico and Washington DC as states.
On this Independence Day, I offer the following options to fix the unjust status quo as it relates to Puerto Rico and Washington:
The Founders created a bicameral legislature in order to ensure that no grouping of states became more powerful than the others. In a way, it set large states like New York and Virginia against small states like Connecticut and Rhode Island. But today, there are no “big state” or “small state” issues. The weight of these states is felt almost entirely in the Senate, and that doesn’t make too much sense. To alleviate some of the concerns about adding four more Democratic Senators to the mix, Congressional and state leaders could consider consolidating some smaller Democratic States so that four Democratic Senators between, say, Rhode Island and Connecticut would become two. The two Democratic Representatives from the former Rhode Island would retain their seats, but the threat of Democratic overcrowding in the Senate might be alleviated.
However, any political leader worth their grit knows that New Englanders are fierce in their state pride. Joining Connecticut and Rhode Island would reduce their ability to legislate on behalf of their constituents. All of the benefit would go to Republican legislators and Puerto Rico and Washington DC. And in the interest of fairness, one would have to urge the Dakotas to unite into one Big Dakota (Woohoo!). Puerto Rico has a population of around 3.5 million people; that is a greater population than Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, and Alaska combined. Consolidation for the purposes of balancing out representation in the Senate could spread nationwide: one could merge Wyoming into Montana (Montaning), Vermont into New Hampshire (Verhampshire), and my favorite: Delaware into Maryland (Delawaryland)! But that isn’t going to happen either.
- Washington for Guam?
Congress’ former preferred method of adding new states to the Union occurred during the antebellum period of American history. For one territory to be admitted, it would need to be paired with another territory that had the opposite political background. That background wasn’t Republican/Democrat, however; it was Slave/Free. In the famous Missouri Compromise, the former territories of Missouri and Maine (Maine was formerly a part of Massachusetts) were admitted to the Union at the same time to add two Republican and two Democratic senators at the same time. This tit for tat strategy of admitting new states lasted generally until the Civil War that ended slavery.
A similar solution could take hold today. Although Washington DC and Puerto Rico are both progressive states, they might be paired with other territories that are equally deserving of Congressional representation. Washington DC might be paired with the island of Guam to become the 51st and 52nd States, respectively. Although Guam is no Utah, it is currently represented by a Republican Governor. In past years, Republicans have controlled the Territorial Legislature, although Democrats are in power today. If admitted to the Union, Guam could potentially add two Republican Senators and one Republican Representative. Unfortunately for this method, Guam has no prominent statehood movement, it would be the smallest state in the Union in population, and is 14 time zones ahead of Washington DC. Guam would likely not make an attractive statehood candidate to be paired with Washington DC or Puerto Rico. (Guamanians are also taxed without congressional representation and they should either be granted actual congressional representation or they should be granted independence).
- Absorb Washington and Puerto Rico
Instead of consolidating some states to make room for Washington DC and Puerto Rico, political leaders might consider absorbing Washington DC and Puerto Rico into existing states. That way there would be no new additional senators and the balance of power only shifts slightly in the House of Representatives. Washington DC was carved out as a federal district between Virginia and Maryland over two hundred years ago. Congress returned the Virginia section (Arlington) of the District just several decades later. This ‘retrocession’ could be mimicked today if Maryland absorbed the remainder of Washington DC, leaving federal buildings and the area around the National Mall. Puerto Rico does not fit neatly into this strategy; it might be absorbed into Florida one of the other Gulf States. But like the former options, there is a gaping issue here.
No one wants this. Marylander politicians don’t want the added responsibility of governing Washington DC. The amount of money that it would take to extend public services to the largest small city in America would be great. Conversely, such a decision would fly in the face of Washingtonians who have fought for years to become a state in their own right. Likewise, Puerto Ricans just voted to become a state, not switch their license plates for Florida plates.
- Act Like Adults And Do the Right Thing
The last solution would be the easiest and most sensible: Congressional leaders should suck up their ideological differences and admit Puerto Rico and Washington DC as states because it’s the right thing to do. American citizens from Washington DC and Puerto Rico serve and die in the United States Military. They pay their taxes, they serve on juries, and they contribute to the greatness of America.
Partisan political divides should not get in the way of justice. The Founding Fathers were taxed without representation into revolution because they knew how unjust it was. Puerto Ricans should not be exploited for human and economic capital while they are denied political representation. Washington DC has since been granted representation in the Electoral College, but the city does not have final authority over its budget or local laws. This solution is even less likely than the others, but it has the most potential to do the most good without contorting the existing political climate. The modern political system that denies representation to American citizens flies in the face of our founding principles, and it needs to be addressed immediately.