House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD) sent a letter to House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) asking that the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico, as well as the other non-voting delegates from the other territories and Washington D.C., be allowed to cast votes in the Committee of the Whole House. The Committee of the Whole House refers to a parliamentary device in which the entire membership of Congress is treated as a single committee.
The Resident Commissioner was able to vote in the Committee of the whole from 1993 to 1995 and again from 2007 to 2011.
This vote doesn’t provide an equal voice with the states. As Hoyer described it in the letter, “To ensure that the provision complies with Article I of the U.S. Constitution, in the event that a matter before the Committee of the Whole is decided by the margin of the votes cast by the Delegates and the Resident Commissioner, the provision requires an automatic re-vote in the full House in which Delegates and the Resident Commissioner may not participate.”
In other words, the Resident Commissioner and the delegates will have the chance to vote, except in cases where their votes would have an actual effect on the law in question. This vote is more a matter of respect than of power or representation. Hoyer said as much.
“As you know, we treat House Delegates and the Resident Commissioner for almost all purposes the same as we treat all other Members,” Whip Hoyer wrote. “The extension of the right to vote in the Committee of the Whole shows them a respect for their status and for the people they represent. I believe this action is both worthy of our great democracy and required by our commitment to representative government.”
Pedro Pierluisi, the outgoing Resident Commissioner, made the same point in 2012, when he protested the loss of the vote. The views of the people of Puerto Rico can at least be represented and recorded, even though statehood would be required for full participation in the U.S. democratic process.
Hoyer was the lead sponsor of the 2007 vote which gave this limited voting ability to the Resident Commissioner and to the other non-voting members. In his letter, he reminded readers that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in 1994 that this arrangement was constitutional.
He offered two reasons for granting this privilege again:
- “First, the Committee of the Whole is the functional equivalent of regular House committees. In both instances, the function of these committees is to expedite consideration of bills and amendments while ensuring that debate is fair to both sides of the aisle. Since House Delegates and the Resident Commissioner have had the right to vote in House committees since 1971, it stands to reason that they should also have the right to cast a vote in the Committee of the Whole.
- Second, House Delegates and the Resident Commissioner are elected by constituents, just as all House members are, and collectively represent almost 5 million people. Furnishing Delegates and the Resident Commissioner the opportunity to express, for the record, their positions on issues of significance that are before the Committee of the Whole strengthens the ability of the electorates in the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories and possessions to hold their representatives to account at election time.”
“Delegate voting is not only constitutional; it improves the legislative process and the degree to which the House of Representatives accurately reflects the 310 million Americans who are subject to the laws it passes,” Hoyer concluded. “In that sense, every American benefits.”