House to vote on Puerto Rico statehood bill tomorrow

Beck was talking about this today so people are e-mailing us about it now. I should be clear: The vote isn’t on whether to make Puerto Rico a state, it’s whether to “authorize” the Puerto Rican government to hold a popular referendum on whether it should become a state. From what I understand, though, Puerto Ricans don’t need any authorization from Congress to hold a plebiscite; they can do it any time they want. The fact that the House is nudging them — and the way that they’re nudging them — is what’s got people’s antennae up. With good reason, says the Heritage Foundation:

First, the legislation sets up a voting process rigged for success. The legislation sets up a preliminary vote and the voters are given two options. If a majority of Puerto Ricans vote in favor of changing the status of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to “a different political status,” then a second vote would be scheduled to poll voters on the following three options:

1. “Independence: Puerto Rico should become fully independent from the United States;”
2. “Sovereignty in Association with the United States: Puerto Rico and the United States should form a political association between sovereign nations that will not be subject to the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution;” and,
3. “Statehood: Puerto Rico should be admitted as a State of the Union.”

See the problem? By splitting it into two separate votes, the House bill avoids a straight up-or-down ballot on the question of statehood (or independence or territorial sovereignty). Once the first hurdle demanding a new status is cleared, a mere plurality can then make statehood a winner. The thing is, I believe a three-way vote is how Puerto Rico’s always handled this. There’s nothing novel that I know of in that aspect of the Dems’ approach. (In fact, by adding an extra hurdle up front, there’s at least a chance that a majority will vote to retain the present status and thereby eliminate any vote on statehood.) What’s novel is that the bill demands a new referendum every eight years if this one fails, which sure seems like an EU-ish attempt to make people vote until the preferred outcome is achieved. It also lets natural-born Puerto Ricans vote even if they reside in one of the 50 states, a fact noted by Heritage as possibly creating a bias towards statehood. Could be, but I’m not sure how Congress would justify limiting the vote to residents when U.S. citizens residing abroad can vote in federal elections back home.

Here’s the money part:

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) put out a report dated July 28, 2009 on H.R. 2499. The CBO report estimated that there would be no score for this bill, because it only authorizes a vote, but if Puerto Rico was granted statehood the cost would be massive. My boss, Edwin Feulner wrote in 1997 piece titled Do We Need a 51st State? “in an era of government downsizing and balanced budgets, it would increase entitlement spending (welfare, Medicare, Social Security) by an estimated $3 billion per year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.” Those arguments still hold water today. The Lexington Institute argues that “Puerto Rico, which received $18 billion in direct federal expenditures in FY 2008, has a population with a median national income of $17,741, nearly a third below that for the United States. While eligibility for many major federal social programs is the same in both jurisdictions, others, like the Food Stamp Program, include different eligibility requirements. This would likely result in increased federal expenditures should statehood be achieved, but a lack of comparable data makes cost projections for such changes difficult.” It is clear that the cost of statehood to the taxpayers will be high.

You’d think that would be enough for the GOP to take a closer look at this idea, at least until some serious progress is made on budget cuts, but Republican consultant Alex Castellanos is writing love letters to the bill and apparently there are dozens of Republican sponsors in the House. And what if it passes? Technically, it’s non-binding on Congress, but if there’s a majority for statehood, the Puerto Rican government could turn around and demand its fair share of representation in Congress:

Robert DePosada, a senior adviser to the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, says that if the NPP gets what it wants in the plebiscites, it will then elect senators and congressmen and send them to Washington to “demand” their seats the same way Tennessee did in 1796 (this is in the party’s platform). The party’s leader and former island governor has said that members of Congress will then be forced to support statehood to “avoid being accused of bigotry against Hispanics.” So the plan is to rig an election and then extort approval from Congress of Puerto Rico as the 51st state.

Fair point, but given the soaring public anxiety over federal deficits, if this vote comes off and Puerto Ricans suddenly start demanding statehood, the cost argument is going to create a pounding political headache for Democrats. As bad as things are for them right now, even lefties are beginning to see that they can get worse still, even with a few new Puerto Rican House and Senate seats in their column. In fact, per Patrick Ruffini’s calculations, the GOP’s currently got a shot at winning 70 House seats this November. Throw this firecracker into the political mix and who knows where that number will go. Beyond that, not only would the Senate have to weigh in on all this — according to a Democratic aide, there haven’t even been discussions on bringing it to the floor — but the House Hispanic caucus is actually split between those who want Puerto Ricans to vote and those who think the current ballot options are too biased in favor of statehood. Long story short, it’s worth watching but I think we’re still a ways away from a 51st state. Albeit not as far away as we were yesterday.

My ignorance of Puerto Rican political history is near total, so if I’ve gotten any facts wrong here, please e-mail and I’ll update.

Update: Naomi Lopez Bauman says it’s all part of a plan:

Puerto Ricans have rejected statehood in the last three self-determination elections, and independence is extremely unpopular. The strategy to virtually eliminate as an option for voters Puerto Rico’s current status as a commonwealth, leaving only independence and statehood as options, will all but guarantee a statehood landslide. The plan is spelled out in their legislation (pp. 7-8) and can be found here. The New Progressive Party (PNP), which is pro-statehood, controls all branches of government. There is little doubt that this bill would become law soon after the U.S. Congress passes the Puerto Rico Democracy Act…

Why do pro-statehood leaders use such strong-arm tactics to force their way into the Union? The main reason is that Puerto Rico’s economy is in shambles and it needs a bailout from the U.S. Treasury that it could not hope to get as a commonwealth.

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