Conservatives Can Redeem America’s Promise To Puerto Rico

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Niger Innis National Spokesman, Congress of Racial Equality
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Some conservatives are opposing H.R. 6246, the Puerto Rico Admission Act of 2018. Timed symbolically before Congress left for its Fourth of July recess, Puerto Rico’s Republican Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón and 22 Republicans and 14 Democrats introduced the bill, which would make future statehood possible for America’s last large, populous territory.

Ironically, these anti-statehood conservatives cite reasons for opposition that demonstrate statehood is the only principled conservative solution and best serves U.S. national interest. 

That’s why prominent conservative leaders from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to current House territories committee Chairman Rob Bishop support statehood, if and when Congress’s terms for admission are accepted by a majority vote among U.S. citizens in the federal territorial reservation known as the “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”

Ronald Reagan was a staunch Puerto Rico statehood advocate because he was a conservative constitutionalist who knew U.S. citizenship and less than equal rights under territorial status could not coexist indefinitely in Puerto Rico. In a 1980 Wall Street Journal editorial page opinion Reagan wrote, “As a ‘commonwealth,’ Puerto Rico is neither a state nor independent, and therefore has a historically unnatural status.”

Like Bush 41 and Bush 43, President Trump reached the same conclusion as Reagan, declaring support for Americans in Puerto Rico to choose statehood on terms offered by Congress. Yet the misinformed anti-statehood conservative fringe stridently cites a litany of historically inaccurate arguments for perpetuating the territorial status quo:  

  • Puerto Rico has a lower than average standard of living and higher than average eligibility for federal welfare benefits. WRONG
  • The current “commonwealth” regime of territorial government has a history of corruption and borrowed itself into bankruptcy. WRONG
  • English is not the first language of a majority in the territory. WRONG
  • Puerto Rico will send only liberal Democrats to Congress. WRONG

In contrast, conservative leadership demands a very different narrative. The realities disputing the fake issues concocted by blindly ideological anti-statehood conservatives are clear:

  •  Most, if not all, territories admitted as states previously had a lower standard of living and were more heavily dependent on federal subsidies than existing states. Even facing current challenges, Puerto Rico is readier for statehood and more economically integrated and developed than most territories admitted as states in the past. If the U.S. wants increased welfare dependency in perpetuity, continue the status quo. 
  • The outdated “commonwealth” regime for local government is a legacy of territorial policy initiatives begun under FDR and New Deal social engineers. Congress created “commonwealth” as an experiment in autonomy but abdicated accountability. If we’re assigning blame, Congress is more responsible than Puerto Rico. It took bankruptcy for conservatives in Congress to restore fiscal disciplines so progress toward a state-like model of a political economy could resume.  
  • As a future state, Puerto Rico can attract real, sustainable investment but not with market-distorting tax shelter gimmicks. Instead, smart mainland companies will be compelled to take early positions in an emergent new U.S. market, jump-starting growth now. Puerto Rico can reverse engineer institutionalized vestiges of the New Deal, deregulate responsibly, and unleash the power of private enterprise to create a vibrant economy. It’s long past time that socialist-leaning failures are replaced by economic liberty.
  • There is a far higher rate of English proficiency in Puerto Rico today than in New Mexico when admitted as a state in 1912 or in Louisiana when admitted in 1812. Statehood remains the best model for a linguistic assimilation.
  • In addition to electing current and former Republican non-voting members to Congress from Puerto Rico, the current Lieutenant Governor, as well as the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate in the territorial legislature, are all Republicans. Both parties win elections and are competitive. 
  • Only if Republicans forfeit leadership in delivering on the promise of America could the GOP success story in Puerto Rico be at risk. If this occurs, Republicans (and the Republic) will have a lot more to lose than just Puerto Rico.

A critical ideological struggle is taking place throughout our hemisphere. The integration of Puerto Rico into the Union has regional importance.

Statehood is the proven means by which all 33 of the territories admitted between 1796 and 1959 resolved the social, economic and political development problems currently used as excuses for denying Puerto Rico statehood. As territories, all 33 states had greater corruption and dependence on federal subsidies and social welfare than they do as states. 

Territories have less rule of law, realize less economic potential, and suffer more frequent developmental arrest than states. Statehood is how U.S. citizen populations in federally governed territories transition to equal rights and duties of citizenship. 

Only statehood honors the principle that government is unjust without equal democratic consent of the governed. Only statehood will allow Puerto Rico to participate in the national and international economy competitively. 

Concomitantly, continuation of the status quo will ensure increased federal subsidization of a failed territorial dependency. After the natural disasters of 2017, there is not enough “government money” to purchase a real recovery for Puerto Rico. 

Only a national policy-making future statehood possible will mobilize the private sector-led development that will enable Puerto Rico to raise its standard of living, join the ranks of the states, and pay its own way in the Union. Otherwise, the massive costs of current recovery projects could be lost by the next assault of nature on infrastructure still not hardened to state-like standards.  

Transition to statehood or integration into an existing state has been the promise of America to U.S. citizen-populated territories governed under the Article IV, Section 3 powers of Congress. That’s been our nation’s heritage since the Northwest Ordinance was adopted by the Continental Congress in 1787 and re-enacted by the First Congress of the United States in 1789.   

What is it about “government by consent, equality, liberty, justice and pursuit of happiness for all” that some conservatives don’t get?  

Niger Innis is a former national Tea Party movement leader and leads the Congress of Racial Equality.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.