13. Grant Territories Statehood or Independence

A Plan to Renew the Promise of American Life, Plank 13

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Plank 13. Grant territories statehood or independence.


Specific Recommendations

13.1. End the era of U.S. colonialism by a date certain. Announce a sunset date for territorial status, after which any remaining permanently inhabited U.S. territory will be declared independent of, and invited to enter into a compact of free association with, the United States. Currently, there are five permanently inhabited U.S. territories: 1) the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 2) the Virgin Islands of the United States, 3) Guam, 4) American Samoa, and 5) the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Stipulate that, prior to the sunset date, each of these territories will be granted U.S. statehood, if the people there formally request statehood, and that any territory that opts for statehood may merge or subdivide with other states or territories as it may prefer, with the consent of Congress and of the other states or territories concerned. Soon after the sunset date, fold any remaining territory or waters not granted statehood or independence into the nearest U.S. state.

13.2. Grant statehood to the District of Columbia by way of a constitutional amendment, leaving a small area for the permanent seat of government, inside the boundaries of which no person is permitted permanent residency status. If necessary, wait to formally admit the new state until there is another state seeking admission that can preserve the partisan balance in the Senate.

13.3. Reduce the U.S. global footprint. Specifically: 1) renounce unnecessary U.S. land claims, 2) work to resolve outstanding foreign land claims peacefully, and 3) shrink the number of overseas U.S. military bases and garrisons to a minimum.


Explanation

U.S. territories have evolved into colonies, a status incompatible with our principles. The United States is a republic, not an empire. Under our Constitution, there is no role for permanent colonies. Territorial status is transitional. The people of a territory, after a reasonable period, must choose whether they wish to enjoy U.S. statehood or independence, and the people of the United States, through their representatives in Congress, should respect that choice. Permanent colonial status isn’t an option in our system, so at some point Congress has an unavoidable duty to compel the people of a territory to choose between statehood and independence.

In 1898, the United States decided to try its hand at imperialism, acquiring from Spain such prizes as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Later, to our credit, we gave some of these countries their independence (Cuba in 1902, the Philippines in 1946), but a handful of un-republican experiments continue in the Caribbean and the Pacific. We maintain a number of island territories, both incorporated and unincorporated, with no plan for shepherding them to statehood or independence. To all intents and purposes, they are colonies. We have been called hypocrites, and we are hypocrites. We should bring our practice into conformity with our principles. Here is my suggested way to do so.

1. Establish a deadline to resolve the political status of the five remaining populated U.S. territories.

The five major territories are: 1) the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 2) U.S. Virgin Islands, 3) Guam, 4) the Northern Mariana Islands, and 5) American Samoa. Congress should let each territory decide whether to become a U.S. state, to subdivide itself or merge with the nearest neighboring U.S. state or territory, or to become an independent state, with or without a compact of free association with the United States.* Independence should be the default option. Upon reaching the deadline, any territory that has not opted to become a U.S. state or part of one automatically gains its independence. Territories should hold any necessary referenda, and Congress should help them accelerate resolution. New states should have a sufficient population to be viable, but I’d err on the side of having more states than fewer.

In practice, Congress will probably try to admit states in pairs, a Democratic state with a Republican one, so as not to alter the partisan balance in the U.S. Senate. That’s a practice with a long history. It’s understandable. But it should not paralyze the decolonizing process. We can afford a slightly altered partisan balance, if not excessive. After all, it’s not always clear how a state will vote over time. In the late 1950s Hawaii was expected to be a Republican state and Alaska a Democratic one. The reverse has proved true.

2. Consolidate under- or unpopulated territories into nearby states.

Once the deadline has passed, and the territories’ new status is resolved, Congress should then merge any remaining territories that are too small to be a state (unincorporated and sparsely inhabited U.S. island territories, such as Swains Island, Palmyra Atoll, Midway Island, etc.) into the nearest U.S. state. I assume no state will refuse to accept the additional territory.

To be clear, the raising of a state flag where a territorial flag once flew would not change the status of preexisting federal installations, such as military bases.

3. Reduce our global footprint.

Along the way, the United States should, as best it can, peacefully settle any claims with foreign nations over disputed territories, renounce any lingering claims outside our immediate territory, and reduce our global footprint consistent with our national interests. We don’t need to own a piece of Antarctica or the moon. And we should close down all overseas U.S. military bases and garrisons we don’t really need, such as the one at Guantanamo, Cuba. Our policy should be one of peace and good relations with all friendly nations.

5. Normalize the status of the federal district.

The District of Columbia is a constitutional anomaly, neither fish nor fowl. D.C. residents live in the special enclave created by the Constitution as the seat of Congress and the government. They voluntarily choose to live in a place that, constitutionally, has no voting representation in Congress. For many years now, license plates issued by the local District government have born the protest slogan, “Taxation Without Representation,” a minor embarrassment that gives some visitors the misleading impression that D.C. residents have no choice about where they live. And yet the District’s residents are not wrong to want congressional representation. And yet—complicating matters—they do enjoy the privilege of casting three votes for president in the Electoral College, thanks to a constitutional amendment added in the 1960s. Oy!

What to do? The District’s status should be normalized. Ideally it would be retroceded to Maryland, from whence it came. Since neither the people of the District, nor the people of Maryland, have shown any interest in retrocession, the only practical path is to grant D.C. statehood. To preserve the Constitution’s intentions regarding the seat of government, the amendment would have to leave a small downtown enclave in existence to serve as the federal district. Within the boundaries of this tiny enclave, every person physically present would be, legally speaking, a visitor from another state or nation. No person would be permitted permanent residency status within the enclave. That would end the “taxation without representation” jibe. The residents of the newly created state would be able to vote for Senators and Representatives on the same basis as other Americans, and the new state would retain its three electoral votes. The tiny enclave would have no votes in the Electoral College, and its few inhabitants, including presumably the president, would have no direct representation in Congress. Instead, the ones who are U.S. citizens would vote in some other state. It would be silly to shrink the federal district down to a few hundred inhabitants and let them keep casting three electoral votes. Congress passed a D.C. statehood constitutional amendment in 1978, but it only secured the ratifications of sixteen states before the proposed amendment expired in 1985. This amendment, or a similar one, would have to be re-proposed. Complicating things still further, D.C. is a solidly Democratic municipality. Republicans have no incentive to favor its admission as a state, since it would certainly send two more Democrats to the U.S. Senate. The way out of this conundrum, I think, is to combine the idea of a D.C. statehood amendment with a definite plan to pair D.C.’s admission with that of a likely-to-be-Republican state. Where could we find such a state? I’m not sure. I don’t know whether any of the potential Pacific or Caribbean states discussed in point 1 above would be Republican-leaning. Perhaps Puerto Rico might. Alternatively, we could carve a new state from the territory of an existing state, for example, California, Texas, or Colorado, each of which has at one point or other seriously discussed subdividing itself. Subdividing a state, of course, requires the consent of the state’s citizens and of Congress. Bottom line: D.C. statehood will not happen without two things: 1) a constitutional amendment and 2) paired admission with a Republican-leaning state. If DC residents are serious about statehood, they will go out and find a Republican-leaning territory (or part of an existing, Republican-leaning state) to team up with on a paired-admission plan.


NOTES

* In a compact of free association, an independent nation agrees by treaty to accept U.S. foreign aid in exchange for letting the U.S. serve as its military protector against foreign attack or invasion. So far, three nations have entered into compacts of free association with the United State: the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. All three of these states were formerly members of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, over which the United States held a mandate from the UN from 1947 to 1986, as was the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which is now a U.S. territory.


Constitutional Amendments

This plank requires one constitutional amendment, which would grant statehood to the District of Columbia while leaving a small downtown enclave to continue as the federal district.


Benefits

Will show the residents of the territories the respect to which they are entitled in our republic.

Will bring to a close the era of American quasi imperialism and restore our just example in the world.


Summary

Plank 12     Contents     Plank 14

Revised: June 4, 2016.

Published: July 25, 2015.

Author: Dean Clancy.

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