"SENATE SHOULD OK PUERTO RICO VOTE TO GIVE PEOPLE VOICE ON STATEHOOD"
(03/09/98, Copyright 1998)
The margin by which the House approved a plan that could lead to statehood for Puerto Rico -- a mere one vote -- indicates the political volatility of this issue.
But the Senate shouldn't get cold feet because of that or search for excuses to duck the matter. Puerto Ricans and the rest of the United States are entitled to a full Senate airing of the issue.
And Puerto Ricans deserve the chance to express their feelings through a referendum.
All of that hinges, however, on the Senate passing a House bill that would set the process in motion. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, passed the House on a 209-208 vote after opponents tried to kill it by citing everything from language differences to the challenges of adding a 51st star to the U.S. flag.
Now Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott may kill it in a backhanded manner by asserting that the Senate doesn't have time to discuss it. Lott and his colleagues should find time.
Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. They are bound by U.S. laws and subject to any military draft.
However, since 1952 the island -- ceded to Washington after the Spanish-American war -- has been declared a "commonwealth" or "territory." That means that, though they are citizens, Puerto Ricans pay no federal income taxes, can't vote in federal elections and have no real say in many of the laws that govern them.
This mixed bag of benefits and restrictions has created statehood backers as well as those who believe commonwealth status offers the best of both worlds.
The House bill would put those two options -- along with full independence, which few islanders favor -- on the ballot for Puerto Ricans to decide. If a majority chose either statehood or independence, the president would draft a transition plan and submit it to both houses of Congress.
If Congress approved the transition plan, it would go back to the islanders for a vote. If Puerto Ricans approved the transition, the president then would draft an implementation plan, which also would go to both houses of Congress and, if approved, back to the island for a final vote.
A "no" vote at any stage -- in either house of Congress or on the island -- would stop the process and maintain the status quo. Thus, safeguards abound.
But this is more than just a vote on the merits. The issue is loaded with cultural and political implications. For an island where Spanish predominates, House opponents tried to pass a killer amendment specifying English as the nation's official language.
But while language is important as a common bond, comparisons to Canada and its problems with French-speaking Quebec are overdrawn in the case of an island some 1,000 miles off the Florida coast. Besides, English already is the language of commerce there, as well as federal agencies and the courts, and it's taught in schools. It's a "problem" that eventually should take care of itself.
There also are political implications, as with everything in Congress. An aide to Young, the House Republican who pushed the bill, notes that as a commonwealth, Puerto Rico receives about $10 billion worth of federal support. Yet its citizens pay nothing back to the federal treasury because they aren't taxed. Statehood would remedy that.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are probably eyeing the two Senate seats and six House seats they think they would gain were Puerto Rico to become a state. But many Republicans also support the plebiscite because they aren't ready to cede the growing Hispanic vote to Democrats, and don't want the GOP perceived as anti-Hispanic.
Still, political calculations shouldn't obscure the main point: that it's time to decide this issue. A Young aide notes that Puerto Rico remains the largest territory in the world at a time when the United States should be getting out of the territory business.
With 3.8 million people, Puerto Rico is larger than 29 states, yet its U.S. citizens enjoy few of the citizenship rights that residents of other states enjoy.
The process outlined in Young's bill contains plenty of safeguards if either Puerto Ricans or representatives of the 50 states don't like the terms of any statehood plan.
But to even get to that point, the Senate first must take its head out of the sand, debate the issue and vote. Puerto Ricans and the rest of the nation deserve at least that much.
Associated Press Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, sponsored bill for a Puerto Rican referendum on statehood that House approved by a single vote last week.