At the end of June, the House of Representatives passed a bill to make Washington, D.C., the 51st state. It was the latest attempt to remedy a centuries-old problem: that the District’s residents have no voting representation in Congress.
The bill is unlikely to even be considered by the Senate, making it a dead letter for the rest of this year. But it can be seen as a statement of intent and could return to relevance if Democrats gain control of both houses of Congress in November.
If that happens, the new Congress ought to spare a thought for the territories.
Washington, D.C., has roughly 700,000 residents. In comparison, more than 3 million of our fellow Americans reside in the five inhabited U.S. territories: Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. Most of those territories have been joined to the United States for a century or more. All people born on their soil, except in American Samoa, are U.S. citizens. Yet, like Washington, D.C., their Congressional representatives cannot vote on bills beyond the committee level. Unlike Washington, D.C., they are located far from the center of our political life, largely out of sight and out of mind.
Representation, as all Americans know, is fundamental to just governance. It is what enables the people to consent to the laws that govern them. In the words of John Locke, whose thought inspired our Union’s Founders: “…whenever the people shall chuse their representatives upon just and undeniably equal measures, suitable to the original frame of the government, it cannot be doubted to be the will and act of the society.”
Or, as the forerunners of the American Revolution said to the British Parliament: “No taxation without representation.”
Residents of the territories are governed by U.S. law, pay U.S. tax and contribute recruits to the U.S. military (disproportionately, in the case of American Samoa). They ought, therefore, to have a say in the federal legislature.
Allowing voting representation for the territories’ residents isn’t just the right thing to do, moreover; it’s also in the national interest. If representation isn’t extended to those peoples, whose cultures and histories are distinct from the mainland’s, then we have to expect that they might someday seek independence. Under such circumstances, there would be no convincing moral justification for denying it to them.
After all, the United States first acquired the territories through conquest or purchase, which are insufficient to earn a people’s lasting allegiance. Although they have occasionally consented to remain under U.S. jurisdiction in the decades since, morally “the government of a conqueror,” as Locke would say, “has no obligation upon them.”
We would miss them if they left, though. The Pacific territories host military installations that enable our Union to defend itself far from the mainland’s shores: Pearl Harbor and the bloody island-hopping campaign that followed taught our country to appreciate the strategic importance of Guam and the Northern Marianas. The Caribbean territories are home to DEA and Coast Guard facilities on the front line against smuggling and drug trafficking.
The territories, in turn, benefit from being part of the United States: They are protected from foreign aggression by the U.S. military and receive public services from federal agencies. But they would benefit more if they had voting representation: Federal agencies and the military would become more responsive to their needs, they would receive a larger share of federal spending and federal laws would take greater account of their interests. Puerto Rico’s experience with Hurricane Maria and its debt crisis starkly exposed the pitfalls of being sidelined in the Capitol.
In 1775, Edmund Burke, hoping to avert the coming break between America and Britain, urged his colleagues in Parliament “to admit the people of our Colonies into an interest in the [British] constitution.” The U.S. Constitution is built on representative government, and so the way to admit the territories into an enduring interest in it is clear: allow them a vote in Congress.
The question, then, is how to do so.
Statehood may or may not be the best way to achieve representation for Washington, D.C., but it is the obvious solution for Puerto Rico. Although its population declined in the past decade, Puerto Rico still has roughly 3 million residents, on par with Iowa. The territory is experiencing economic difficulties, to be sure. But the rationale for statehood is political, not economic, and so Puerto Rico’s debt problem should not disqualify it from being fully admitted to the Union (Illinois has a debt problem, too).
Puerto Ricans have deadlocked on statehood referendums before, but none of those have been tied to immediate, tangible action. Congress has the constitutional power to confer statehood, and so Congress ought to bring the issue to decision by passing a statehood bill, with its enactment contingent upon ratification by Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans would then have a clear choice: accept statehood and swiftly receive it, or reject it and retain the status quo.
Statehood does not seem practical right now for the other four territories: their populations are so small that it would require an unwieldy enlargement of the House of Representatives to represent them in proportion to the existing states. Guam, the largest, had one-third the inhabitants of Wyoming, the smallest state, in the last Census. American Samoa’s population was less than that of Frederick, a mid-sized city in Maryland.
Instead, we might consider a constitutional amendment that would give those four territories a voting delegation in the House. The delegation would have one vote, as the smallest states do. A number of delegates would be elected to it from each territory in proportion to population, and the delegation would hold an internal ballot to decide how to cast its Congressional vote.
Electoral College representation could be handled by extending the 23rd Amendment, which provides electoral votes to Washington, D.C., to those territories collectively. They could, if they choose, divide up the three votes they would receive under that scheme between themselves, just as Maine and Nebraska apportion their electoral votes by district.
This proposal offers a practical solution to a principled problem and is necessarily imperfect. Each territory has its own debate about what sort of association to have with the mainland United States, and there may well be better ways to represent them in Congress.
Congress should start exploring options, starting with testimony from the territories’ people. For, along with Washington, D.C., their representation is a logical next step towards achieving a more perfect Union.
John P. Caves III is a former Army officer and the author of The New Model Federalist, a series of essays on U.S. politics. While on active duty from 2013 to 2017, he traveled across the country and was stationed in Alaska and Oklahoma before returning to civilian life in his home state of Maryland. He currently does nonproliferation research at a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit.