The Grand Rapids Press
"A choice for Puerto Rico"
(03/10/98, Copyright 1998)
Vote on the island would begin statehood decision in Congress
On the 100th anniversary of the United States' takeover of Puerto Rico, it's fitting that Puerto Ricans themselves be asked where they should go from here. The U.S. House has done that. The Senate should follow.
The House proposal, approved last week, would give Puerto Rican voters three options in an election to be held this year: statehood, continued status as a U.S. commonwealth and independence. No immediate changes would follow, regardless of the vote. A majority for statehood or independence would be a mere starting point in a process extending over 10 or more years. Before any new state or national flag flew over San Juan, the Puerto Rican people and Congress would each have to vote twice more. Statehood would also involve settling such knotty issues as language, welfare benefits and federal taxes.
Puerto Rico has been a U.S. possession since being taken by the United States from Spain in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, are bound by federal laws and are eligible for the U.S. military draft. They have an elected government but do not vote in U.S. presidential elections and have only a non- voting representative in Congress.
Statehood would give Puerto Ricans a much stronger voice in Congress -- two senators and six or seven House members -- and would entitle Puerto Ricans to huge increases in federal social benefits, a big factor in light of Puerto Rico's low per-capita income and 13 percent unemployment rate. But Puerto Ricans would also have to begin paying federal income taxes and would lose some of their separate cultural identity.
For such reasons, the statehood issue has closely divided Puerto Ricans for years. In a referendum held in 1993, commonwealth status was preferred to statehood by a 48 to 46 percent vote. Four percent favored independence. In the U.S. House vote last week -- in which the House as a whole voted 209-208 to conduct the plebiscite -- the four members of Puerto Rican descent split evenly on the question.
Senate Republican leaders, in tagging the House-passed bill for the Senate shelf, may be looking at the political calculus: Anybody sent to Congress from Puerto Rico probably would be a Democrat. The political cast of the island, however, shouldn't be a factor in what Congress decides. Nor should a referendum on Puerto Rican statehood be considered grounds for a similar status for Washington, D.C. The capital city should remain just what the Constitution describes: a separate seat of government.
The Senate should remove from the Puerto Rico bill two features which seem to tip the question toward statehood. One requires continued votes every 10 years if Puerto Ricans choose to remain a commonwealth. Follow-ups aren't mandated if either of the other options is chosen. The second flaw is a suggestion in the ballot language that U.S. citizenship could be removed from Puerto Ricans if they choose to remain a commonwealth. Such fear-mongering is out of place and certainly is offensive to Puerto Ricans who have served in the U.S. armed forces. Senators also should strip from the bill anything that would limit congressional debate on Puerto Rican statehood. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, cited the debate restriction as a factor in his vote against the referendum.
With those changes, the next move should belong to the 3.8 million people of Puerto Rico. A majority vote for either continued commonwealth standing or a change to statehood is easy to imagine.
After 100 years, Congress should want to know.