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The Limited Rights of the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico

The Congressional Research Office has released a report on the “Parliamentary Rights of the Delegates and Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico.”

Here is the initial summary:

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 do 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 House of Representatives for the 117th Congress (2021-2022), the delegates and resident commissioner may preside over the Committee of the Whole and may vote in the committee—subject to an automatic revote in the House in cases in which their votes were decisive. Delegates and the resident commissioner may not vote in, or preside over, the House.

What does that mean?

Members of Congress by any other name

The delegates in the title of the report are the representatives of the United States territories in Congress: American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The United States has had delegates from its territories since 1794. All of the delegates have two year terms, like the Members of Congress from the States, and all are elected in their territories.

Puerto Rico, the largest and most populous of the territories, has a resident commissioner rather than a delegate. In 1900, Congress decided that allowing territories to have delegates implied that they would eventually become States. They thought that Puerto Rico should have a different kind of representative, since the Insular Cases had created a new kind of territory, the unincorporated territory, which might not become a State.

In 1920, the resident commissioner’s term was extended to four years.

House committees

The House of Representatives is divided into committees that focus on specific topics. For example, the House Committee on Natural Resources is in charge of Puerto Rico.

Delegates, and the resident commissioner, can be assigned to committees just as the representatives of States are. They can do the same things on committees as the regular Members of Congress:

  • question witnesses
  • participate in debate and vote
  • offer amendments and motions
  • raise points of order
  • include additional views in committee reports
  • accrue seniority
  • chair committees and subcommittees

In the House

In the larger grouping of the House of Representatives, the delegates and the resident commissioner can do several things:

  • sponsor and cosponsor legislation
  • participate in debate—including managing time
  • offer any motion that a Representative may make except the motion to
  • raise points of order
  • raise questions of personal privilege
  • call a Member to order
  • appeal rulings of the chair
  • file reports for committees
  • object to the consideration of a bill
  • move impeachment proceedings

They can’t preside over the House or vote for the Speaker of the House. They also can’t vote on the floor of the House.

The Committee of the Whole

Sometimes the entire membership of the House of Representatives acts as a single committee. This is the main way that Congress discusses and debates legislation, or laws. It is required for any laws involving money and can be used for other kinds of laws as well. When the House does this, it is called the Committee of the Whole, and it follows slightly different rules from the rules of ordinary House sessions.

The House agrees to move into this committee mode, the Speaker of the House is replaced by a chairperson (who may be the resident commissioner), and a symbolic mace is moved to a lower position. A mace is a medieval weapon, and the mace in the House of Representatives is a symbolic version of this weapon which has been used as a symbol of authority since the 1700s. See its picture at the top of this page.

A quorum for the Committee of the Whole is just 100 members, rather than half of the members as is the case during ordinary sessions. Members are allowed five minutes to present arguments for or against an amendment. There are some other small differences, but these are the major changes.

Once the discussion about the law is completed, the Committee of the Whole rises: that is, they end the Committee of the Whole session. The Speaker of the House goes back to his or her accustomed place, the mace is returned to its higher position, and the Speaker reports to the House of Representatives the decisions made in the Committee of the Whole.

Voting in the Committee of the Whole

The resident commissioner currently is allowed to vote in the Committee of the Whole, although the Congress doesn’t always allow that vote. It is one of the rules each class of Congress can decide. One Congress cannot make a later Congress go along with its decisions, so this permission to vote can be taken away.

However, it is always true that if the resident commissioner casts a deciding vote, there is an automatic revote, without the resident commissioner. So, if there are 100 members present for the Committee of the Whole and 51 (counting the resident commissioner) vote for a particular law, the vote will be taken again without allowing the resident commissioner to vote.

Laws affecting Puerto Rico are therefore decided by the representatives of the States.

Non-voting representative

The resident commissioner is often described as a “non-voting” representative, since any deciding vote cast by this person will not be counted.

Download the full report.

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