The Puerto Rican Compromise


On Jun. 11, Puerto Ricans voted for the second time to become a state of the union. Could this Caribbean island actually become the 51st state of America? Other authors have written at length about the political struggles within Puerto Rico as well as the island’s serious financial sickness. I will not repeat their capable analysis of those problems. Rather, I will consider the less talked about issue of the congressional balance of power.

Puerto Rico has long been a progressive region featuring a population of twice as many Democrats as Republicans. Accordingly, it is reasonable to expect the 3.5 million residents of Puerto Rico to vote overwhelmingly for the progressive party. This likely means that there will be more votes for the Democratic presidential candidate and two more Democratic Senators to shift the balance of power further leftward.

For decades, control of the U.S. Senate has swayed back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, which has created a balance of power between the liberal and conservative parties. If Puerto Rico is admitted as the 51st state, that balance would be thrown in the progressive direction. Logically, Republicans and conservatives should oppose that an outcome, and consequently oppose Puerto Rican statehood.

Such political stonewalling is not without historical precedent. In 1820, the northern free states blocked the admission of Missouri as the 24th state because Missouri, a territory that allowed slavery, would disrupt the balance of power between free and slave states. The impasse was overcome only after the southern slave states agreed to admit Maine, a territory that banned slavery, simultaneously alongside Missouri. This swap became popularly known as the Missouri Compromise.

In 1952, Hawaii was denied admission as the 49th state because Southern Democrats feared its multicultural voters would elect pro-civil rights Senators and break the South’s power to filibuster. Only after Alaska, a very conservative territory with a homogeneous population, received statehood in 1958 was Congress willing to accept Hawaii into the union. Thus, the balance of power was maintained once more.

As in Congress’ past, today’s Congress can use compromise to break a political standstill. To maintain the balance of power, a second conservative-leaning territory must be admitted to the union to accompany Puerto Rico. Fortunately, such a place exists in the Pacific Northwest.

Since 1852, 21 counties in northern California have been working to secede. The region’s 2.3 million residents call their home the “State of Jefferson.” These counties feel separated from the rest of California. Jeffersonians speak in libertarian phrases, arguing that the California government has confiscated much of the region’s resources without ensuring that “Jefferson” is adequately represented. They want greater representation, less regulation, and a restoration of economic liberty. This conservative outlook has led Jeffersonian counties to vote overwhelming for Republican candidates in all levels of government.

The Jeffersonian separatists have been unsuccessful in large part due to the complexity of seceding from an existing state to form a new state. Three bodies must approve secession: voters in each county, the California legislature, and the U.S. Congress. As of June 2017, the voters of few counties have approved secession though nearly all have initiated the process of doing so. However, the movement’s greatest challenge is convincing the California legislature to acquiesce. The Jeffersonian counties hold 54 percent of California’s water capacity, engendering concern among the state’s legislators of losing control of that water.

Accordingly, the Californian secession movement has been stagnant for nearly 80 years. However, despite these challenges, Congress has the power to break the deadlock. First, Congress may require Jefferson to constitutionally guarantee water rights to California. Second, Congress can authorize water management projects in California to help the state build its own water supply. If done correctly, Congress can assuage the fears of Californians, and create a path for Jeffersonian statehood.

Should Jefferson be separated from California and properly admitted as a state, it would certainly send two Republican Senators to Congress. Taken together with Puerto Rico’s two likely Democratic Senators, the present congressional balance of power would be preserved, and Republican objections to Puerto Rican statehood would be rendered moot.

Though congressional tug of war may seem quaint, the Puerto Rican question and the State of Jefferson movement make such debates decisive. Winning that debate, through a Puerto Rican Compromise will be the Puerto Rican people’s surest path to statehood.

Hayden Padgett is a technologist and libertarian activist.

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