The new House Rules for the 116th Congress were posted this week. One of the new rules is a change affecting Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner:
Section 102. Changes to the Standing Rules. Notification of Convening of the House. Subsection (a) clarifies that Delegates and the Resident Commissioner must be notified of action regarding the convening of the House pursuant to clause 12 of rule I. Voting by Delegates and the Resident Commissioner in the Committee of the Whole. Subsection (b) extends the same powers and privileges of Members to Delegates and the Resident Commissioner when in the Committee of the Whole. The subsection also provides that any recorded vote in the Committee of the Whole, decided within a margin where the Delegates and the Resident Commissioner may have had a decisive impact on the final outcome of the vote, will be re-conducted in the House. Allowing Delegates and the Resident Commissioner to Serve on Joint Committees. Subsection (c) provides that Delegates and the Resident Commissioner may serve on joint committees.
What this means is that the Resident Commissioner (currently Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon) will now be allowed to vote in Congress.
However, if the vote is close enough that the outcome is affected by her vote, that vote will be cast out and a new vote will be taken. For example, the agriculture bill containing language making cockfighting illegal in U.S. territories passed by just a handful of votes. If representatives from the territories had voted, the outcome would probably have been even closer.
If that vote had taken place in 2019, chances are good that it would have required a new vote, without input from the U.S. territories.
A symbolic change
The example of the farm vote could be ironic. This would be a case in which a provision in the law affecting the territories in particular (cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states) would have been revoted without the representatives of the territories.
This underscores the symbolic nature of the rule change. While the ability to vote in Congress gives Gonzalez-Colon the chance to speak for Puerto Rico in the legislature, it does not give Puerto Rico enough of a say to affect any outcomes of laws affecting the Island.
A step back
In 2017, a report on the powers of the territories’ representatives clarified that they could not vote.
As officers who represent territories and properties possessed or administered by the United States but not admitted to statehood, the five House delegates and the resident commissioner from Puerto Rico do not enjoy all the same parliamentary rights as Members of the House. They may vote and otherwise act similarly to Members in legislative committee. They may not vote on the House floor but may participate in debate and make most motions there. Under the rules of the 115th Congress (2017-2018), the delegates and resident commissioner may not vote in, but are permitted to preside over, the Committee of the Whole.
In 1817, representatives of territories (which did not at that time include Puerto Rico) were given “a seat with a right of debating, but not of voting.” In 1993, they were given non-decisive votes as the new rules provide.
In 1995, they lost the symbolic vote. In 2007, they regained it. In 2011, they lost it again. It has now been restored.
These changes correlate with the party (Democratic or Republican) having control over the House at the time.
This is another example of the power of Congress to make rules and regulations for Puerto Rico without input from the residents of Puerto Rico.