Coronavirus Shows the Need for D.C. and Puerto Rico Statehood

How these parts of the country got shortchanged by the federal government.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed many flaws in America—from a lack of medical equipment in the federal government’s national emergency stockpile to the fact that there’s no universal requirement for employers to offer paid sick leave. It has also reinforced the need to address certain geographic inequities. Case in point: D.C. and Puerto Rico are less equipped to fight the virus than most of the rest of the nation simply because they are not states.

On Friday, President Donald Trump signed into law a $2 trillion stimulus to rescue the economy from the shock of coronavirus, which will provide millions of Americans with direct cash infusions and will allocate billions of dollars in funding to states and municipalities to fight COVID-19.

But some parts of the country are getting a lot less help than others. As the Washington Post reported, D.C was intentionally classified as a territory instead of a state, cutting the number of federal dollars the District will receive by more than half. Whereas each state will get $1.25 billion, the bill appropriated $3 billion for D.C. and the five U.S. territories—Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa—to be divided by population. D.C. will ultimately get $500 million in relief, less than half of what it would if it were a state.

“I was enraged by the fact that the District of Columbia was going to be shortchanged,” Senator Chris Van Hollen told the Post, which reported that Democrats tried to classify D.C. as a state in the legislation but that Republicans shut it down as a deal-breaker. This reveals yet another reason why it’s necessary for Democrats to start pushing strenuously for D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood.

It’s not just for their own political advantage; as Ben Paviour explained in a 2018 Monthly piece, the party stands to gain a lot by adding four more Democratic senators and several House members. It’s a moral imperative. Without this representation, these areas are grossly neglected, particularly in times of crisis. 

D.C. and Puerto Rico don’t have the representatives to lobby for them when it matters. This dynamic was also on display when Congress made decisions about disaster relief for Puerto Rico following its devastating hurricanes and earthquakes. The House and Senate took months to come to a consensus about the amount of aid the territory would receive, leaving the disaster relief unresolved for a dangerous amount of time. 

Now, with the stimulus (the largest in American history), the District has also seen the financial consequences of being without statehood. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents D.C. as a non-voting member of the House, told the Monthly that this issue never would have occurred if the District had full representation in the House and Senate. “If we had had two senators, this issue would not have come up,” Norton said. “There would have been no notion that any states should have been shortchanged in this way. It’s another indication of why we need D.C. statehood.”

As of Monday night, 495 D.C. residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and nine residents have died from the virus. These numbers rank the District higher than 16 states in the number of positive cases. In addition to the District proper, there are more than 1,000 confirmed cases in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area.

D.C.’s population of more 700,000 is greater than the population of two states—Vermont and Wyoming—and comparable to two others, Alaska and North Dakota. The District’s status as an urban, densely-packed region means the inherent close-contact nature of a city makes residents much more susceptible to the virus: an effect New York City, the current epicenter of America’s coronavirus crisis, is now experiencing.

“Because the District is a city and we live in closer quarters than in neighboring states, I think that is why we have more cases than 18 states,” Norton said. “So, our need is really very great compared to most states.”

Norton expects the deficit in funding to be fixed retroactively; she said the District is likely to receive further funds in future relief bills.

Still, the problem of statehood remains at the core of why D.C. is behind the curve in the first place. It’s also a reason why the District has been historically left behind. Despite having no Congressional voting power, D.C. residents are still required to pay federal taxes, and laws and budgets passed in the District must obtain Congressional approval to come into law, leading to unnecessary logjams for local legislation. D.C. residents weren’t allowed to elect a mayor or City Council until 1966, and a clause in the U.S. Constitution has allowed Congress more recently to prevent the District from enacting certain laws, such as local gun-safety laws and HIV/AIDS prevention measures.

A growing recognition of this reality helps explain why, in recent months, the fight for D.C. statehood has made marginal progress. The House Oversight Committee sent a proposal to grant full statehood to the District to the full chamber in February, after Delegate Norton introduced the bill back in January 2019. More than 200 co-sponsors and broad support from D.C. residents notwithstanding (a 2016 referendum saw nearly 80 percent of residents support statehood), the bill is unlikely to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate.

But this moment could be an opportunity to move public opinion. As Rahm Emanuel once famously said: Never waste a crisis. “This is a prime example because if the District is going to be treated unequally, even during an emergency and national catastrophe,” Norton told me. “I think that makes the best case for D.C. statehood.”

Puerto Rico has a population of more than three million, higher than 21 U.S. states. Similar to residents of the District, citizens of Puerto Rico also have no voting power through their federal government representation. But unlike D.C. residents, Puerto Ricans are unable to vote in presidential elections even though they are U.S. citizens.

Crucially, Puerto Ricans know the cost of not having statehood. After the devastating impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the small island received nowhere near enough federal support to rebuild and recover: While HUD is required to allocate $20 billion in aid for Hurricane Maria as the result of various bills, only about $1.5 billion of that aid had been released by the end of 2019. What’s more, the House passed an additional $4.7 billion disaster recovery bill in early February—a month after the island was hit by a number of earthquakes halting reconstruction efforts—but the bill has stalled in the Senate.

Now, Puerto Rico needs more help. As of this writing, the territory has 239 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Eight Puerto Rico residents thus far have died from it. Those numbers are surely going to increase.

It’s not merely a matter of semantics whether D.C. and Puerto Rico are classified as states and not territories. It’s one of equality and justice. People who live in those places will suffer, some will even die, because they lack the rightful political representation afforded to the rest of the country. If that’s not a good enough reason for D.C. and Puerto Rico to become states, what else is?

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Cady Stanton

Cady Stanton is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly.