WASHINGTON – When the bells ring announcing a vote, 435 members of the House stream out of their hearings and offices and head for the House floor. Five others, banned from voting, seldom bother.
That would change if the new Democratic majority succeeds in changing the rules this week to give partial voting rights to the delegates from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands. A vote is scheduled Wednesday on restoring the rule.
It was in effect in 1993 and 1994 — the last time Democrats were in power — but rescinded when Republicans took over Congress in 1995.
"We believe that was unfortunate because we have five people here sent by their constituents to the House but who do not have an opportunity to express their views in a public way," said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
The rule that existed briefly a decade ago let delegates vote in what is called the "committee of the whole," a term for the procedures the House uses when debating and amending a bill before going to a final vote. But the rule also stipulated that if a delegate's vote has a decisive impact on the outcome, the committee of the whole disbands and the full House votes on the issue without delegate participation.
That was to avoid a constitutional challenge. A federal judge in 1993 upheld the rule letting delegates vote, but only because of the automatic revote feature. He said that because the delegate vote had no ultimate effect on legislative power, it did not violate Article I or any other part of the Constitution.
Virgin Islands Del. Donna Christensen said her fellow delegates would have preferred getting full voting rights. But "it's important because it's a step forward," she said. "It gives the delegate more opportunity to participate in the work of the House."
House Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in a floor discussion with Hoyer, suggested that since the delegate vote can't affect the outcome, the real purpose of the rule change was to "give a deceptively large margin" to the Democrats. The only Republican among the five delegates is Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuno of Puerto Rico.
Blunt also questioned the fairness of giving votes to delegates who represent far fewer people than representatives with districts of 600,000 or more. American Samoa has fewer than 60,000 people, the Virgin Islands 109,000. Guam has about 171,000.
"The decision to have a relationship with the territories, that was not made anticipating that the territories would be represented as states are represented," Blunt said.
Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, a 10-term delegate for American Samoa, responded that Puerto Rico has 4 million residents and while he represents the smallest constituency in the House, "my little territory has the highest per capita casualty rate in the whole United States" in Iraq.
Congress established the category of delegate soon after the Constitution was ratified to give a voice to areas eventually expected to enter the union as states. The first delegate, representing the area south of the Ohio River, was seated in 1794.
Puerto Rico has been represented in the House since the beginning of the 20th century. The District of Columbia received a seat in 1971, followed the next year by Guam and the Virgin Islands and in 1978 by American Samoa. The delegates have full voting rights in committees and can rise through the committee ranks like other members.
District of Columbia Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said it was a "complete disgrace" that she is barred from voting on the House floor.
She said she appreciated Hoyer's efforts on behalf of the delegates but added that it is no longer relevant to District of Columbia, which is moving aggressively to win full voting status now that Democrats are back in charge of the House.
Norton and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., have introduced legislation that would increase the full House membership to 437, with Washington, overwhelmingly Democratic, getting one seat and the other going to solidly Republican Utah, which narrowly missed getting a new seat after the last census.
Hoyer, at a news conference last week, said that he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi supported giving Washington, D.C., a vote and had asked Norton to set up a meeting to discuss strategy. Norton said her goal was a committee vote in February and floor action in March.