Today we could comment on the latest thing President Trump tweeted. Or we could do something interesting. Let’s have a show of hands. All in favor of the latter . . .
Yeah, we thought so, too.
On Wednesday, we marked the 60th anniversary of Hawaii’s admission to the union as the 50th state. That raises a question: Will there ever be a 51st state? Or even a 52nd? Let’s look at the prospects:
1. Puerto Rico. This is the obvious one. Population-wise, it’s bigger than 31 other states. The U.S. acquired both Hawaii and Puerto Rico in the same consequential year of 1898 — so why did Hawaii get admitted six decades ago and Puerto Rico hasn’t been? One answer is that Hawaii got economically annexed by American business interests — actually those businessmen preceded the political annexation. By contrast, the mainland has generally treated Puerto Rico as something “other” — a Spanish-speaking “other,” at that. Not until 1947 did the U.S. even allow Puerto Rico to elect its own governor.
The first time a U.S. political party voiced an opinion on statehood for Puerto Rico was apparently 1940 — when the Republican platform for Wendell Wilkie called statehood “the logical aspiration” for Puerto Rico but didn’t explicitly endorse statehood. Little-known fact: The Republican platform in 2016 did explicitly endorse Puerto Rican statehood, although it’s certainly not something Donald Trump has ever embraced. Four times Puerto Rico has held referenda on the subject — 1967, 1998 and 2012 and 2017. In the first two, Puerto Ricans voted to retain the status as a “commonwealth.” In the second two, they voted for statehood — although critics found reason to dispute each result. Independence has never won more than 5.5% of the vote.
Not surprisingly, Democrats tend to be more enthusiastic than Republicans (the GOP’s 2016 platform notwithstanding). Everybody assumes that Puerto Rico would send two Democratic senators and four Democratic representatives to Washington. This may or may not be so. Even if it’s so now (about 71% of non-Cuban Latinos voted Democratic in 2016), it may not be in the future. Political alignments can change. In the 1950s, it was assumed that Alaska would be Democratic and Hawaii would be Republican; they’ve turned out exactly opposite. Still, Puerto Rican statehood seems unlikely to happen in the current political environment — although if Democrats ever have a trifecta of the House, the Senate and the White House, the odds are much better. They might also be surprised by the results. Puerto Rico does elect a non-voting representative to send to Washington now. She’s a Republican.
2. New Columbia. Colonists declaimed against “taxation without representation.” That’s also what residents in the District of Columbia can get on their license plates. The district occupies an odd place in American politics. Its residents are American citizens. They can vote for president.But they don’t have any elected representation in Congress.
The founders were unhappy that Pennsylvania authorities didn’t control the unruly crowds who gathered outside the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Once, Congress was forced to adjourn to New Jersey — New Jersey! — to avoid protestors. That’s why the U.S. Constitution carved out a special district for the nation’s capital that Congress would control. Of course, the founders also didn’t envision that capital would someday have a population bigger than two of our now 50 states.
The first conversation about how to resolve the unique status of the growing number of D.C. residents began in 1888 — and ultimately resulted in D.C. getting three electoral votes. Since the ’60s, there’s been a full-fledged statehood movement in D.C. Since 1993, statehood bills have been introduced in Congress every year — and went nowhere. Earlier this year, another was introduced —with Virginia’s two senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, as co-sponsors. Don’t count on the State of New Columbia anytime soon. Republicans see D.C. statehood as a gimmick for Democrats to pick up two more senators. “This is full bore socialism on the march,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, declared earlier this year. “And yeah, as long as I’m the majority leader of the Senate, none of that stuff is going anywhere.”
D.C. statehood may not be “full bore socialism,” but New Columbia would be a most unusual state. It’s geographically small, of course. And other states have both rural and urban areas; D.C. is entirely urban. It truly would be a city-state. There is another option to resolve the status of D.C. residents: We could give D.C. back to Maryland (except for a few acres around the White House, the Capitol and the Supreme Court to satisfy the constitutional requirement for a federal district.)
There is precedent for that. The original district included territory from both Maryland and Virginia. In 1847, the federal government gave the portion west of the Potomac back to Virginia — today’s Arlington County and Alexandria but then all simply Alexandria County. The federal government had no interest in that part of the district; in fact, federal law banned putting government buildings there. Virginia was keen to get the land back. Alexandria was a major market for the slave trade. There was an active abolitionist movement in Virginia at the time – remember that Virginia then included all of today’s West Virginia. Pro-slavery interests thought that getting Alexandria County back would add more pro-slavery legislators in Richmond.
Now here’s something interesting: Some questioned whether Virginia could legally re-annex Alexandria County without breaching its previous promise to “forever cede and relinquish” the county to the federal government. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 1875, dodged the legal question. As late as 1909, President William Howard Taft was in favor of re-annexing the land back into D.C.
Legally speaking, the big obstacle to Maryland taking over D.C. is that Maryland would have to agree. Meanwhile, Republicans who want to have some legal fun may want to challenge whether Arlington and Alexandria really are lawfully parts of modern-day Virginia. But that’s a subject for another day.