Supporters of Puerto Rican statehood are trying to amp up pressure on Congress to act.
Advocates held a press conference in Washington on Tuesday, urging federal lawmakers to take up a bill that would sanction an official vote on whether the island commonwealth should become the 51st state.
“Residents of Puerto Rico are citizens of the greatest democracy in history, but they do not have voting representation in the government that makes their national laws and they are often treated unequally under those laws,” said Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress.
Whatever you support, the reality is that Puerto Rico will not become a state any time soon. Here are three reasons why:
1. An Inconclusive Election
Pro-statehood advocates were reinvigorated after last November’s election. A majority of Puerto Rican voters for the first time said they want change to the island’s political status.
In a non-binding ballot referendum, 54 percent of voters said they were not satisfied with the island’s status. And 61 percent voted in favor of statehood, while 33 percent backed greater autonomy, and 5 percent favored independence from the U.S.
Voters who backed statehood outnumbered those who voted to maintain commonwealth status. But was there a clear cut majority for statehood?
The ballot referendum was a two-part question. And opponents of statehood were quick to point out that over 435,000 people who voted on the first question (whether to change the island’s status) did not vote on the second (what the status should be). Puerto Rico’s population is 3.6 million.
Some observers attributed that to confusion about the ballot language, but others said it was a demonstration that Puerto Ricans still haven’t arrived at a consensus on the island’s status.
And despite the ballot referendum, the island’s pro-statehood governor, Luis Fortuño, was unseated by Alejandro García Padilla, who wants to keep the island’s commonwealth status.
U.S. leaders, including President Barack Obama, have long said that Puerto Ricans would have to show a clear preference for a particular status before an official vote is held. And it’s fair to say there is still some confusion surrounding that question.
2. Economic Problems
Puerto Rico faces a serious debt crisis.
The island’s debt per capita rivals Detroit’s, according to the The New York Times. Last month, The Economist compared the Puerto Rico’s economic woes—which include anemic growth and 13.9 percent unemployment—to Greece’s. You get the idea, it’s bad.
So what does it mean? It’s harder for Puerto Rico’s government to finance its operations. Experts fear that the island could default on its debt, prompting speculation that the federal government could offer it an unprecedented bailout.
Statehood advocates blame the island’s current status for its economic problems. They say it encouraged its government’s borrowing habit and led to a “brain drain,” where talented people leave the island to work or study in the mainland U.S.
That’s true. But making Puerto Rico a state wouldn’t necessarily alleviate its debt problems, either. Neither states nor territories can declare bankruptcy. That means Puerto Rico could not attempt a restructuring plan like Detroit’s if it became a state.
In addition, some experts believe that the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution could give Congress the ability to establish a financial control board for Puerto Rico, similar to how it navigated Washington, D.C. out of trouble in the 1990s.
And broadly speaking, lawmakers may simply be reluctant to take in a state with such economic turbulence.
3. Congressional Gridlock
Statehood requires the approval of Congress. Good luck getting it.
Advocates point out that statehood enjoys bipartisan support. The pro-statehood bill in Congress has 125 co-sponsors from both political parties.
But despite the bipartisan support, statehood could still run into opposition from both parties. Some Republicans balk at the billions of dollars in additional federal spending on social programs that could result from Puerto Rico becoming a state.
Several Democrats in Congress who are of Puerto Rican descent, such as Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (Ill.), also oppose statehood and favor the island’s current status.
And bipartisanship has offered no guarantee that Congress will act on other issues. Just look at immigration reform.
In addition to immigration, Congress has a lengthy to-do list that includes tackling a long-term budget agreement, a farm bill and a bill on military sexual assaults.
“Daily Show” Correspondent Al Madrigal may have said it best when it comes to statehood backers.
“They're frustrated because for 96 years, they've only had one non-voting member of Congress, which they think is somehow worse than having congressmen who can vote.”
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.