Experiences of Past Territories Can Assist Puerto Rico Status Deliberations

GGD-80-26: Published: Mar 7, 1980. Publicly Released: Mar 7, 1980.

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Puerto Rico's 3.3 million residents are sharply divided on whether they should retain the present Commonwealth arrangement, or petition Congress for statehood, independence, or an amended form of the current status. Resolution of the debate on Puerto Rico's political relationship with the federal government rests with its residents and Congress. In response to a congressional request, GAO reviewed past territorial transitions in an effort to provide insight into many issues likely to be addressed by Puerto Rico and Congress.

The U.S. Constitution grants Congress authority over territories and the power to admit new states or grant independence. It guarantees each state a republican form of government and provides certain limitations on forming new states from existing states. Congress has been guided in evaluating statehood applications by the following admission principles: (1) that the inhabitants of the proposed state are imbued with and sympathetic toward the principles of democracy as exemplified in the American form of government; (2) that a majority of the electorate desire statehood; and (3) that the proposed new state has sufficient population and resources to support a state government, and to provide its share of the cost of the federal government. In the past, admission procedures, prerequisite conditions, assistance provided, and time elapsed before attaining statehood have varied. In considering the admission of Alaska and Hawaii, for instance, issues such as population size and composition, geography, political and economic development, and financial capabilities were considered. In addition, federal restriction of Alaskan development was considered and a large land grant, cash assistance, and other special transitional provisions were provided. Financially strong Hawaii required no transitional aid but received a cash grant instead of the traditional land provision. In the case of the Philippines, Congress accepted the decision of the Philippinos to become independent and enacted special legislation to assist its transition.

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