As Puerto Rico continues to express its desire to become as a state of the union, Washington seems to tell the island’s U.S. citizens, “slowly,” or “despacito,” just like the record-breaking hit by Puerto Rican artists Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee and renowned pop star Justin Bieber proclaims.
Last month, 97 percent of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood in yet another political status plebiscite. Only five years ago, 54 percent of them voted to end the current territorial status, with 61 percent voting in support of the island becoming the 51st state. Yet, Congress, on whom the sovereignty of the island resides, has remained largely silent. Congress hasn’t formally acknowledged the results or moved to act upon them.
As a constitutional conservative, I find this extremely troubling. Under the territorial regime the island has been stuck in for 119 years, its people, who were granted U.S. citizenship 100 years ago, cannot vote for the president that can send their children to war and don’t have adequate and proportional representation in Congress. Puerto Rico’s only representation on Capitol Hill is a nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives.
Needless to say, this arrangement goes against the most basic constitutional principles of our democracy and has to be corrected with a sense of urgency. Consider that our forefathers took to arms because England didn’t want to recognize the full natural rights of the residents of the colonies. Is Congress now going to behave like King George and deny the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico the fundamental political and civil rights that the Constitution guarantees every American?
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Some insist that Puerto Rico should still go despacito and get its fiscal house in order before going to Washington to ask for statehood. It’s true that Puerto Rico accumulated a massive public debt of more than $70 billion because of the irresponsible behavior of past governments that were addicted to excessive public spending. This led Congress to impose on the island an oversight board that has veto power over the fiscal and budgetary decisions of its government.
This, however, is a weak excuse to avoid tackling the statehood question. Nothing prevents Congress from putting Puerto Rico in the path towards full incorporation as a state, while the island’s government goes through the process of stabilizing its finances. In any case, while Congress should begin now to put the incorporation process in motion, this doesn’t mean that statehood would be granted overnight. There would be a transition period and, surely, during that time Puerto Rico will get control over its debt.
Puerto Rico’s new governor, Ricardo Rosselló, in fact, a staunch fiscally conservative is already pushing forward a plan to dramatically transform the island’s government, reducing the bloated state administrative apparatus from more than 120 agencies to about 30 and substantially curbing public spending, following a zero-based budgeting model.
Congress also has to understand that the status issue is not unrelated to the island’s financial challenges. To achieve the strong and sustained economic expansion, Puerto Rico needs to avoid serious fiscal woes in the future and to get out of the current territorial regime that stifles its capacity for real growth. The uncertainty of Puerto Rico’s status, with its inconsistent application of federal laws and regulations, creates an environment that’s not attractive to private investors who seek clarity and stability in deciding where to place their money.
Furthermore, if the Republican Congress is serious about opposing bailouts then it must move quickly to end the permanent bailout system that it maintains for Puerto Rico. Under territorial status, a considerable portion of the billions of federal dollars Puerto Rico receives in entitlement money is a gift from the U.S. taxpayer since the island’s citizens don’t pay federal income taxes. As a state, while Puerto Rico would receive more in federal funds, its citizens would pay their fair share into the system.
Despacito is certainly not the answer to Puerto Rico’s aspiration to become a state. Rather than dragging their feet, congressional leaders should emulate President Ronald Reagan, who not only supported statehood for the island, but also when announcing his candidacy for president pledged in a Wall Street Journal oped to “initiate statehood legislation” because he understood it “would be good for all of us.”
Alfonso Aguilar is president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the administration of President George W. Bush.