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. Bring our practice into line with our founding principles by ending the era of U.S. colonialism, in an orderly way, by a date certain. Specifically, announce a sunset date for the current political status of all U.S. territories. Before that deadline, grant statehood to any willing territory, if it voluntarily opts for statehood, according to the normal constitutional process. After the deadline, declare any remaining permanently inhabited U.S. territory to be independent of the United States of America and invite it to enter into a compact of free association with us. 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. In making the offer of statehood, remind the territories 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 shall be permitted permanent residency status. If necessary, in order to preserve the partisan balance in the Senate, wait to formally admit the new state until there is another state seeking admission.

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

The purpose of this plank is to bring our practice into line with our founding principles by ending the era of U.S. colonialism, in an orderly way, by a date certain.

Problem

American federal 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, must respect that choice. Permanent colonial status is not an option in our system. 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.

Proposed Solution

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. /1

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. /2

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 1961. Oy!

What to do? The citizenship status of District residents should be normalized, while a federal district should also be maintained as the Constitution requires. Ideally the bulk of the existing District would be retroceded to Maryland, from whence it came, while leaving a small downtown enclave in existence to serve as the federal district. Inside this small enclave would be the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the headquarters of the major federal agencies (including perhaps the Pentagon, which is located across the Potomac river in Virginia). Since neither the people of Maryland, nor the people of the District, have shown any interest in retrocession, the only practical path, it seems, is to grant D.C. full statehood, again, while leaving behind a small federal enclave. Within the boundaries of this new, reduced 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, even if they in fact lived there full-time. The new enclave would have no votes in the Electoral College, and its few inhabitants, including presumably the president, would have no guarantee of direct representation in Congress, although the ones who are U.S. citizens would be guaranteed the right to vote in a state of their choosing. It would be absurd to shrink the federal district down to a few hundred inhabitants and let them keep casting three electoral votes for president and vice president.

Meanwhile, 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 have at least three electoral votes, because the Constitution guarantees at least that many to every state.

Thus, no one could ever again complain of ‘taxation without representation.’

Would the change require a constitutional amendment? Yes, for several reasons. First, while Congress has the power to pass an ordinary bill admitting a new state, and also has the power, by ordinary legislation, to locate and govern a federal district, it has no power to go without a federal district. The Constitution requires the establishment and maintenance of one. Ending that requirement would require a constitutional amendment. Second, as we’ve seen, granting D.C. statehood would absurdly leave the remnant federal enclave with three electoral votes despite having no population to speak of. The Twenty-Third Amendment would have to be repealed. Third, to guarantee that residents of the tiny enclave could be permanent voting residents of some other state while living and working in the district, we would also need a constitutional amendment to make sure states don’t disenfranchise those voters. Therefore, under any scenario, we would need a constitutional amendment.

Incidentally, if Congress tried to remove the district to some completely new location—to California, say, or Kansas—all the same ‘taxation without representation’ and electoral college issues would still be present. Plus, Congress would have to obtain the consent of the state or states where the new district would be situated. And it would then have to schlepp the whole government across the continent to its new home, doubtless a very costly move. It would be much simpler to just fix D.C.’s problem in the manner I’ve suggested.

Congress proposed a D.C. statehood constitutional amendment in 1978, but the proposal only secured the ratifications of sixteen states before expiring under its own self-imposed ratification deadline in 1985. This amendment, or a similar one, would have to be re-proposed.

Finally, there is one more complication to deal with. D.C. is a solidly Democratic municipality. It has voted for the Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominee in every election since the Twenty-Third Amendment came into effect in 1964. Republicans have no incentive to favor D.C.’s admission as a state, since it would just send two more Democrats to the Senate. The way out of this conundrum, I think, is with a paired admission plan: two states come in at the same time, one Democratic (D.C.) and one Republican. Personally, I’d include in the actual text of the statehood amendment a paired-admission clause explicitly granting Congress power to make the admission date of the District as a state dependent on the admission of a non-D.C. state. And I’d make this power temporary, so that there’s a hard deadline to work against. Underlying this clause would be a gentleman’s agreement that the second state would be Republican-leaning. 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 Republican-leaning state from the territory of an existing state, for example, California, Texas, or Colorado, each of which has in the past seriously discussed subdividing itself. Subdividing a state, of course, requires the consent of Congress and of the citizens of the state to be subdivided (all of them, not just those living within the proposed new state).

The bottom line is this. D.C. statehood will not happen without two things: a constitutional amendment and paired admission with a Republican-leaning state. Since living inside the District is formally voluntary, there is no deadline for action. No one is holding D.C. residents captive. If they are serious about statehood, they will go out and find a Republican-leaning part of the country and team up with it on a paired-admission plan and persuade Congress, and the states, to pass the necessary constitutional amendment and admission acts. That may seem unfair, but we have no choice. We live under a written constitution.


NOTES

1/ 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.

2/ In general, I think most U.S. states should be, on average, geographically smaller and more numerous than they are at present, and closer to each other in land area. I’d especially like to see the largest four—Florida, Texas, California, and Alaska—subdivide themselves. But I am under no illusions about the likelihood of that happening. Subdivision seems to happen only when citizens of a state are deeply divided along geographic and economic lines (e.g., West Virginia versus the rest of Virginia in the early 1860s).


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.


Revised: June 4, 2016.

Published: July 25, 2015.

Author: Dean Clancy.

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