The 113th Congress has passed a formal set of rules to govern debate and consideration of federal legislation, and for the second Congress in a row, delegates of the U.S. territories and District of Columbia will be denied a voice in the House of Representatives. Roughly five million U.S. citizens who reside within the United States, fight in our wars and pay taxes will have no voting representation in the House and no presence at all in the Senate, where they lack Senators.
It hasn’t always been this way. As House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) explained, delegates for U.S. citizens living in the territories and D.C. at least had the ability to vote on amendments to legislation under previous Congresses even if they could not vote on final passage of bills:
[T]his package continues the policy of denying a voice to 5 million American citizens living in our territories: the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, as well as Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. We have extended in Congresses past–and, frankly, when I was the majority leader–the ability for those Representatives to vote on this floor, not to vote on final passage–the Constitution would have to do that–but to vote in the committee, in the Committee of the Whole. They can vote in our committees in the House, and we ought to give them that right here as a show of respect in order to honor their service to American citizens in the territories and in the District of Columbia.
Speaking out before Congress against the rule, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi related the denial of voting rights for his roughly four million constituents to the recent plebiscite vote in Puerto Rico in which the voters chose to end Puerto Rico’s territorial status in favor of statehood:
Under a rule in place for the last three Democratic-controlled Congresses, the delegates were permitted to vote on amendments when the House met in the Committee of the Whole. The rule, which provided for a revote if our votes were decisive, was upheld by the federal courts and did not impede the work of the House.
The rule promoted responsible government by requiring the delegates to take public stands on issues. It also sent a message of inclusion to our constituents. Yet, once again, in a move that is as unnecessary as it is unjust, the new rules will deprive us of this privilege.
As Resident Commissioner, I represent 3.7 million U.S. citizens, more than any House member and 44 senators. My fellow delegates represent about one million people. Our constituents are part of the American family. They fight–and many have died–in defense of our nation. The rules package demeans their sacrifice.
In November, a referendum in Puerto Rico showed a clear majority wants to end the Island’s undemocratic status, and that more voters support statehood than any other status option. Today’s rules demonstrate why the status quo must–and will–end. I look forward to the day when Puerto Rico will have equal representation in the government that makes its national laws, rather than having to plead for the reinstatement of a limited and largely symbolic vote.
Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX), Chair of the House Rules Committee defended the rules by noting that representatives of non-state jurisdictions “are not Members of Congress, and they do not possess the same potentiary rights afforded to Members under the Constitution.”
It is vital that the voices of the 5 million Americans represented by delegates and the Resident Commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives are heard in our legislative process. “By changing the House rules to silence these voices in the 112th Congress and again in this new Congress, House Republicans are doing a disservice to our greatest traditions of political inclusion and common-sense, democratic principles. I strongly urge them to reconsider and to allow the Delegates and Resident Commissioner to vote in the Committee of the Whole House.
Before the House rules passed, Washington D.C.’s delegate Eleanor Homes Norton also fought back. She introduced a proposal to require a study of whether there is any reason that delegate voting should be denied. She called the denial of voting rights to her 600,00o taxpaying constituents who have fought in all of the nation’s wars “unthinkable.” The study, which could have built on the findings of two federal courts that have already determined that delegate voting is constitutional, failed by a vote of 224-187. Ms. Norton elaborated:
What is more painful and arbitrary than not having the final vote, what is more painful and arbitrary than not having even the vote in the Committee of the Whole is having a vote that you have exercised withdrawn, as this vote was today. In three Congresses we exercised our vote in the Committee of the Whole. No vote should be dependent on which party is in power. The vote in the Committee of the Whole was not a vote on final legislation. It was a symbol of our American citizenship. You cannot take away our citizenship. In this country, you should never be able to take away a vote once it has been granted.
Donna Christensen, delegate for the U.S. Virgin Islands, added that “[i]t is ironic that the United States is the leading voice calling for people around the world to have more, not less say in the governance of their countries, while the rules of the House of Representatives disenfranchise the representatives of American citizens living in U.S. Insular Areas and the District of Columbia.” She added:
[T]he over 4 million citizens in the U.S. territories are among the most patriotic Americans you will find anywhere in our country. They have served and died for their country in every war and conflict since the First World War including the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much like their fellow citizens on the mainland they are a diverse group of individuals. Some were born in the territories under the American flag, some have migrated there and embraced our culture and our values before naturalization, and others were born in the states and have chosen by virtue of their chosen occupation or by love of our islands to make the territories their home. All are Americans in every sense of the word, except for full representation in the House of Representatives and the ability to vote for the President of the United States.
We had hoped and expected that our colleagues in the House would recognize the contributions of their fellow American insular residents and afford their representatives the opportunity to participate more fully in the decisions of the “people’s House”, unfortunately however the rules package being voted on has once again proven to us that we still have a long way to go to ensure equality and justice for all. It is ironic and sad, that the United States is the leading voice calling for people around the world to have more, not less say in the governance of their countries, while the rules of the House of Representatives disenfranchise the representatives of American citizens living in U.S. Insular Areas and the District of Colombia.