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Sheldon Whitehouse’s Frustrating, Illogical Remarks on D.C. Statehood

Why is the Democratic senator from Rhode Island so hesitant on full representation for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s presidency has sparked a rolling national discussion about the long-term vitality of America’s democratic system. Democrats are more than happy to talk about how his rise to power undermined the nation’s experiment in self-government, how his presence in the White House sullies it, and how his actions as president have imperiled it. But it’s unclear whether Democrats’ focus on acute threats to the republic’s long-term health extends to more chronic problems.

Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has been a sharp critic of Trump’s policies and behavior over the last two years. Last week, The Providence Journal’s editorial board asked him about his views on potential statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Whitehouse responded with disinterest in the question for the island, then expressed opposition to its prospects for the district.

“I don’t have a particular interest in that issue,” Whitehouse said. “If we got one one-hundredth in Rhode Island of what D.C. gets in federal jobs and activity, I’d be thrilled.”

“Puerto Rico is actually a better case because they have a big population that qualifies as U.S. and they are not, as D.C. is, an enclave designed to support the federal government,” Whitehouse said. “The problem of Puerto Rico is it does throw off the balance so you get concerns like, who do [Republicans] find, where they can get an offsetting addition to the states.”

Whitehouse—whose comments caught wider notice on Thursday, prompting him to issue a statement saying that he would support statehood in both cases—is right that D.C. statehood raises some thorny questions for American governance. Placing the seat of federal power under a single state’s jurisdiction could be a constitutional crisis waiting to happen. (Imagine if D.C.’s power utilities cut off electricity to the White House and the Capitol during a dispute with the federal government, for example.) Ideally, the district’s residents could get congressional representation through something like the Twenty-Third Amendment. But since there’s no explicit constitutional bar to it, statehood is a feasible and reasonable solution to 700,000 Americans’ permanent lack of representation.

He’s also correct that Puerto Rico has a good case for statehood. The commonwealth’s 3.3 million Americans outnumber the populations of almost two dozen individual states, but dwell in a constitutional purgatory of sorts. Puerto Ricans enjoy a greater degree of self-government than a territory, but lack the sovereignty, legal stature, and electoral weight of a state. A grim recent example is the disastrous federal response after Hurricane Maria devastated the island last year and killed thousands of people. While congressional representation and a few votes in the Electoral College aren’t a panacea to the scars of colonialism and racism, the island’s residents have indicated in referenda that they would prefer it to the status quo.

Whitehouse’s response goes awry at two key points, however. The first is his dismissive approach toward the question of D.C. statehood itself. Senators need not be passionate or particularly interested in every political issue, but it’s striking that he’s so dismissive toward one of the most feasible ways that Democrats could chip away at the GOP’s current structural advantage in the Senate. After all, he spent the last few months staunchly opposing Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. If two D.C. senators had been able to cast a vote, Whitehouse’s preferred outcome would have prevailed.

The second and perhaps greater error is Whitehouse’s concern that there isn’t an “offsetting addition” for Republicans. This may be an important practical hurdle to Puerto Rico statehood while the GOP controls the presidency or part of Congress. But it’s neither a legal requirement nor a moral necessity if Democrats eventually control all the political levers. It’s one thing for lawmakers to engage in a little horse-trading across the aisle to secure funding for a pet issue or pass a budget. It’s quite another to do it with millions of Americans’ right to self-government.

This approach is something of a tradition for top Democrats these days: unilaterally imposing limits on their ability to leverage an electoral mandate into lasting political change. Yearning for bipartisan buy-ins might have made sense in less polarized eras of American history. Now it just seems self-injurious for Democrats to seek it in the age of Trump. The GOP certainly isn’t operating under these rules. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s master of realpolitik, isn’t going out of his way to add a few liberals to the pile of conservative forty-somethings that he’s shoveling into the federal courts. Republican secretaries of state like Kris Kobach and Brian Kemp haven’t bent over backwards to disenfranchise as many likely Republican voters as Democratic ones.

If Democrats retake power over the next few years, there are major steps they could take to strengthen American democracy. The Week’s Ryan Cooper made the self-evident but necessary argument in March that there’s “nothing wrong with strengthening America’s democratic institutions—making it simpler and easier for all Americans to vote and obtain political representation—in part because it would provide a partisan benefit.” At the top of his list was statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, followed by abolishing the legislative filibuster and passing a new, stronger Voting Rights Act. I’d add automatic voter registration and anti-gerrymandering reforms at the state level, too.

Indeed, there’s a similarly blunt clarity in the GOP’s current strategy. Without extreme partisan gerrymanders, widespread voter suppression, and strict anti-immigration measures, the conservative political coalition may no longer be electorally viable in an increasingly diverse country. Republicans therefore have a logical reason (albeit a morally flawed one) to oppose an American electorate that can fully impose its political will. The only real mystery is why any Democrats would oppose that, too.

This article has been updated to note Whitehouse’s statement on Thursday.