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. Do so in an orderly way by a date certain. Specifically, announce a sunset date for the current political status of all U.S. territories, including the five permanent territories, which are the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands of the United States, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Before the deadline, grant statehood to any willing territory, if it opts for statehood, according to the normal constitutional procedure. After the deadline, declare any remaining permanently inhabited U.S. territory to be independent of the United States of America and extend a time-limited offer to enter into a compact of free association. 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. Renounce unnecessary U.S. land claims. Work to resolve outstanding foreign land claims peacefully. Shrink the number of overseas U.S. military bases and garrisons to a minimum.


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.


American federal territories have evolved into colonies, a status incompatible with our principles. The United States is a republic, not an empire. /1

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.

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. But we can rectify this, and we should.

Proposed Solution

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

Congress should let every inhabited territory, and in particular the five permanent territories, decide whether to become a U.S. state or to become an independent state, ideally with a compact of free association with the U.S. /2

New states should have a sufficient population to be viable, but I would err on the side of having more states than fewer. Territories with insufficient population for statehood should be folded into the nearest state. /3

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.

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. It’s been the reverse.

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

After the deadline has passed, and the territories’ permanent status determined, 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, and Midway Island) 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.

And we should close down all overseas U.S. military bases and garrisons we don’t really need. I’m thinking, for example, of the one at Guantanamo, Cuba. Since Cuba is currently a hostile country, we may have to wait till it becomes friendly or until we can get something beneficial in return. Our policy should be one of peace and good relations with all friendly nations, and firmness with unfriendly ones.

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. Having such a district is a good idea, but the Constitution does not give its residents voting representation in Congress. For many years now, license plates issued by the local District government have born the protest slogan, ‘Taxation Without Representation,’ which may be true in a technical sense, but it gives visitors the misleading impression that D.C. residents have no choice about where they live. In fact, they are free to live wherever they want — in nearby Maryland or Virginia, for example. D.C. residents forgo their representational rights voluntarily, and have no right to complain. And yet they are not wrong to want congressional representation. And yet — and here things start to get complicated — they currently enjoy the constitutional privilege of casting three votes for president in the Electoral College, thanks to an amendment ratified in 1961. Sheesh.

What to do? Do both. Enable D.C. residents should to have congressional representation, and maintain a federal district. Ideally the bulk of the existing District would be retroceded to Maryland, from whence it came, while excluding a small downtown enclave to serve as the federal district. (Arlington County was retroceded to Virginia in 1847.) Inside this small enclave would be the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the headquarters of the major federal agencies (and could include the Pentagon, which is located across the Potomac river in Virginia, although that would obviously complicate matters). Since neither the people of Maryland, nor the people of the District, have shown any interest in retrocession, the more practical path, it would seem, is to grant D.C. full statehood, again, while leaving behind a small federal enclave carved out of the current District. It would be necessary for the new district to have no residents as a legal matter. Within its boundaries, everyone would be, legally speaking, a visitor from another jurisdiction. No one could have permanent residency status, even if they lived there full-time. The new enclave would have no votes in the Electoral College because it would need none. 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. No one could ever again complain of ‘taxation without representation.’

Would the change require a constitutional amendment? Yes. For several reasons. For one thing, the Twenty-Third Amendment would have to be repealed. 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. For another, while Congress has the power to pass an ordinary bill admitting a new state, and also has the power, by ordinary legislation, to choose the location of, and govern, the federal district, it has no power to go without a federal district. The Constitution requires one. 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’d need a constitutional provision that prevents states from disenfranchising those voters. So, under any scenario, we’d 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 then it would then have to schlepp the whole government across the continent to its new home, at enormous cost. 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 through paired admission: two states come in at the same time, one Democratic (D.C.) and one Republican. Personally, I would 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 would make this power temporary, so that there is 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? Alternatively, we could, as it were, 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 that wants to be subdivided (all of the citizens, not just those living within the proposed new state).

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 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 state seeking admission and team up with it on a paired admission and persuade Congress, and the states concerned, to pass the needed constitutional amendment and admission acts. That may seem like an unfair burden, but tough beans. Sometimes the rule of law is complicated.


1/ I realize the United States has the responsibilities of empire, despite not being one formally. We are obviously a great power, a global superpower, and the hegemon of the West. And that’s good, and we should want it to continue. But we can be a hegemon without being a despot.

2/ A compact of free association is a voluntary protectorate. An independent, usually smaller, nation agrees by treaty to let a larger, stronger nation serve as its military protector against foreign attack or invasion, and perhaps also to speak for it in international affairs. Typically, the larger power is allowed to maintain a military presence within the smaller nation, for which it pays rent. 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 are former members of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, over which the United States held a mandate from the United Nations from 1947 to 1986. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands was also part of that trust, and is now a U.S. territory.

3/ In general, I would prefer that most U.S. states be, on average, geographically smaller and more numerous than they are now, and closer to each other in size. Certainly, it would be good for the largest three states — Florida, Texas, and California — to subdivide themselves. But I am under no illusions about the likelihood of that happening. Countries expand, they never contract, at least not voluntarily, and usually not without being motivated by some deep divide, economic or cultural.

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 required by the Constitution.


Ends American colonialism.

Restores our just example in the world.

Honors the freedom and dignity of the peoples of the territories.

Revised: June 4, 2016.

Published: July 25, 2015.

Author: Dean Clancy.

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