There was a bit of agitation in the Senate the other day on Puerto Rico. The issue is whether in this session of Congress Majority Leader Trent Lott will send to the floor a bill drafted by Sen. Frank Murkowski authorizing a self-determination process for Puerto Rico. So far Sen. Lott is hanging back. The feeling seems to be that the island's Hispanic and poor and its linguistic preferences make it a poor fit as a state. Anyway, it might send Democrats to Congress.
These considerations must be dealt with. Puerto Ricans were never considered a poor fit when they fought America's wars and -- 1,200 of them -- died in combat. A transition to statehood, if such were agreed by the United States and Puerto Rico, would be intended to move the island's economy away from current welfare levels. It seems unfair, after 81 years of citizenship as Spanish-speakers, to expect an abrupt rather than considered transition to English-speaking. And to assume that islanders will surely and steadily return Democrats to Congress is uncertain and should not be determinative. If the senators really want to get political, they should ponder the effect a denial of self-determination could have among an American Hispanic community fast becoming the largest minority group in the land.
But let us not get tangled up in the underbrush surrounding the issue. At its core it is a call upon the deepest American tenets of democracy and self-determination. The Constitution makes no provision for the second-class citizenship that circumstances and American political languor planted in Puerto Rico. One hundred years after the United States took the island in a war with Spain, it is past time to provide it the choice Americans are due. If Sen. Lott has reservations about the already stripped-down Murkowski bill, he should work them out on the floor or let others move on with what Sen. Robert Torricelli aptly called "the unfinished business of American democracy."