The Washington Post

"A 51st State?"

(03/15/98, Copyright 1998, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved)

IN THE HOUSE, the Puerto Rico status bill, which carried by one vote, became an imperfect test of congressional sentiment on statehood. Congress doesn't yet possess the information and understanding that alone would permit a mature decision. But the partial conversion of a "process" bill into a vote on substance was unavoidable and even necessary. Not that statehood is the antidote to Puerto Rico's ills; on that basic question we await more debate. But if Congress and the president are to invite Puerto Ricans to decide whether they wish to extend the current "commonwealth" or to strike out for statehood or independence, then legislators must be prepared to honor the islanders' choice. To end a century of territorial -- some would say colonial -- rule by inviting Puerto Rico's bid for self-determination and then repudiating its choice of statehood would be the ultimate disaster.

In a straw poll on the island in 1993, a variant of commonwealth took 48 percent, statehood 46 and independence 4. But the variant now offered is less generous to Puerto Rico. Moreover, statehood is being made more attractive by the status bill pledge for Washington actually to act on Puerto Rico's choice.

Commonwealth embodies the second-class citizenship (no federal tax but no federal vote) that generates perpetual discontent. Independence appears too bold for many. Statehood would extend to Puerto Ricans full citizenship rights and responsibilities. Termination of their second-classness is what the status bill is first about.

But the other issues are not inconsequential. House supporters of a national "English only" movement sought to apply their rigid rule to the largely Spanish-speaking, culturally distinctive island that the United States casually picked up from Spain in 1898. Bill sponsors countered reasonably with an amendment to apply official mainland language requirements and to increase English proficiency in the schools. These are worth doing regardless of status.

Puerto Rico's poverty, worse than the 50 states' worst, also requires attack regardless of status. Statehood would mean major extra federal welfare payments. But it would also mean additional revenues perhaps greater than these costs. The numbers need work.

Mainlanders would reasonably expect any Puerto Rican bid for statehood to be approved by a healthy majority. Mainland Democrats, with an eye partly on those new congressional seats, would welcome such a bid. For 58 years the GOP has formally affirmed Puerto Rico's right to apply for statehood. But 80 percent of House Republicans, though not the speaker, voted against the new proposal, and Senate Republicans are wobbling. Both parties and both branches need to think hard about just what mainland Americans owe their fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.

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