Puerto Rico Could Change Congress If Made A State
Robert Siegel talks with Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's resident commissioner in Washington, D.C., about support swelling on the island for U.S. statehood.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Of the 50 million Hispanics in the U.S., nearly two-thirds are of Mexican origin. The second largest group - accounting for about 9 percent - are the nearly five million Puerto Ricans who live in the 50 states and the District of Columbia - that is, not on the island of Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. The island has been a U.S. territory since the Spanish-American War.
Well, on Election Day, Puerto Rico held a vote on the island's status, and although some people dispute the meaning of the result, the winning option was statehood. Joining us now to talk about this is a statehood advocate, resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, who is also Puerto Rico's non-voting member of Congress. He caucuses with the Democratic Party. Welcome.
RESIDENT COMMISSIONER PEDRO PIERLUISI: Thank you. Thank you for having me here, Robert. I'll be glad to expand on what happened in Puerto Rico on November 6th.
SIEGEL: Well, let's begin with the rather controversial result. There were two questions on the ballot. First: Should the current territorial status continue? Fifty-four percent said no. And the second question was: If not, what should be the status? And of three choices offered - independence, a sovereign, free associated state or statehood - statehood got 61 percent of the vote.
Some people say, though, so many people didn't vote on question number two, it really doesn't say that much.
PIERLUISI: Yes. But let's go step by step. The first question was pretty clear, basically whether Puerto Rican should remain the way it is, a territory. And 54 percent of the voters said no.
SIEGEL: But just to pursue the result one more time, about a quarter of the people who voted on question number one didn't vote on question number two. Some people said they didn't even know they could vote, or that it made any sense to vote on question number two if they supported the status quo.
PIERLUISI: It was pretty clear in terms of the public discourse. And there was a lot of informative ads telling voters that these were two questions, separate questions, and that regardless of the answer to the first question, they should make a choice. So that's where we are.
SIEGEL: Right. All right, that's where we are. So we have a result. We have an election that's taken place, a referendum. President Obama has said - and I'm quoting now - "When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you." The Republican platform of 2012 said that party supports the right of U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the union as a fully sovereign state if they freely so determine.
But it then speaks of that happening by means of a general right of referendum, or specific referenda sponsored by the U.S. government. Does that mean a different kind of election than the one you just held in Puerto Rico?
PIERLUISI: The government of Puerto Rico has every right to hold a plebiscite, to consult the people of Puerto Rico regarding their wishes. But the truth is that for a change in the status of Puerto Rico to happen, you need both Congress and Puerto Rico agreeing to it.
SIEGEL: Let me ask you a couple of questions about statehood. The benefits of statehood may be self-evident. On the other hand, Puerto Rico enjoys a very unusual status. Puerto Ricans don't pay federal income tax, I understand it. You have your own Olympic team and, you know, your own baseball team in the World Baseball Classic, and you also use Spanish as an official language.
This makes you remarkably different from the other states. Would Puerto Ricans be willing to give up those privileges of the current situation in order to become a state?
PIERLUISI: Well, we would have to see if Congress imposes terms and conditions on the admission of Puerto Rico as a state. There are now over 50 million Hispanics in America. Spanish is the predominant language in many areas of the country. Now, Puerto Rico will get a lot of additional federal assistance, but at the same time, corporations and wealthy taxpayers on the island would pay federal income taxes.
Right now, we pay federal payroll taxes - Social Security, Medicare. But close to half of the households in the U.S. mainland do not owe federal income taxes. So in the case of Puerto Rico, right now, at least eight out of 10 taxpayers wouldn't be paying federal taxes, anyway. I believe in the long run, this would be a win-win for both the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
All property values would increase, like it happened in Hawaii and Alaska. The economic growth in the island would also increase like it happened in Hawaii after Hawaii became a state. So that would offset any kind of impact that federal income taxes could have.
SIEGEL: As you know, the smart money in Washington, and certainly on the world's editorial pages, is against the prospects of Puerto Rico becoming a state. People note that unlike Alaska or Hawaii, Puerto Rico would not enter with just one seat in Congress. It would have a delegation about as big as that of Connecticut or Oregon's. Lots of people look at Puerto Rican voting in the States and say they're all going to be Democrats, and the Republicans are not going to admit that many new Democrats to the Congress.
PIERLUISI: They don't know Puerto Rico that well. Puerto Rico is predominantly Catholic but a lot of evangelical Christians in Puerto Rico right now. It is conservative on social issues. Pretty much this is like a middle-of-the-road type terrain. Puerto Rico should not continue to have the current status which is colonial in nature if the people of Puerto Rico - and on top of it, American citizens - are telling the world we don't want it anymore.
SIEGEL: Well, Representative Pierluisi, thank you very much for talking with us.
PIERLUISI: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Pedro Pierluisi is the resident commissioner and nonvoting member of Congress from Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.