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Membership Has its Privileges: Participation of DC and Territorial Delegates in House Proceedings

Last week, on the opening day of the new Congress, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton argued that the House should adopt a rule allowing her and territorial delegates (representing Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa) to vote in the Committee of the Whole. Since 1993, the House has had such a rule during periods in which Democrats held the majority. Norton also asked for a special committee to study the issue of delegate voting.

Following the House’s decision to reject her requests, Norton stated: “The audacity of stripping a vote for taxpaying Americans won fairly by vote of the House and approved by the federal courts was outdone today by the refusal of the House majority to restore the vote of District citizens.”

The federal court decisions referred to in Norton’s statement are Michel v. Anderson, 14 F.3d 623 (D.C. Cir. 1994) and the lower court decision by Judge Harold Greene in the same case. Both these courts upheld the practice of allowing delegates to vote in the Committee of the Whole, but only on the ground that the re-vote portion of the rule (requiring, in essence, that the votes of the delegates would not count whenever they would be determinative of the result) made it constitutionally inoffensive. Judge Silberman’s opinion for the appellate court described the vote given to the delegates as “largely symbolic,” while Judge Greene was more blunt, calling it “meaningless.”

These opinions also relied heavily on House practice and precedent with regard to participation by delegates and non-members in its proceedings, but they appear to have overlooked some of the most important precedent. In my next few posts, I will discuss the relevant history and how the House has looked at this constitutional question.

Here is what I tentatively think these posts will show:

  • Because the Constitution provides that “the House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States,” delegates from DC and the territories, which are not states, cannot be members of the House.
  • Historically, the House has viewed it as constitutionally permissible to allow non-members the right to participate in debate, so long as they cannot vote.
  • More recent practice has allowed delegates to vote in standing committees. This practice can be squared with the traditional view, I believe, because the activities of committees are most reasonably viewed as being on the “debating” side of the debating/voting line. Voting on certain matters, such as issuing subpoenas or holding witnesses in contempt, however, may raise additional issues.
  • The real disagreement between House Republicans and Democrats has come down to voting in the Committee of the Whole. This disagreement is much narrower than it might appear (or Norton’s rhetoric might suggest) because the Democrats only gave the delegates a symbolic vote precisely because of concerns about the constitutionality of the practice. The Republicans presumably believe that giving non-members a vote in the Committee of the Whole is a constitutional impropriety, even if it is effectively harmless error.

Having said all this, I think Norton’s idea of having a committee (it could be a standing committee such as Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution) look at this issue makes sense. The principle is that delegates can debate, but not vote. But the power to debate can be quite meaningful (as illustrated by the Senate filibuster), while the power to vote at issue here is merely symbolic. Perhaps there is ground for a compromise by, for example, enhancing the authority of the delegates to debate matters that specifically impact their constituents.

2 Comments

  1. The issue of District delegates voting exists for the simple reason that residents of the District of Columbia are neither fish nor fowl in the American federal system. More than 150 years ago, the United States returned the land ceded to it by Virginia. Those residents now participate fully in the civic and political life of the their state and the nation. It is time for the Congress to return the land ceded by Maryland and for the 23rd Amendment to be repealed.

  2. Joe says:

    I think there is some force to Thomas Brennan’s comment as a whole but the argument she makes applies to each delegate here, including those representing the more numerous population of Puerto Rico. The idea there would be a permanent large territory of this sort would likely concern many framers & regardless is problematic in general to the length, e.g., that four million people can’t vote for the President that executes the law in their territory.

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