GOP blunts powers of Pierluisi, other delegates
One of the first acts of the new Republican-controlled House on Wednesday was to take away the floor voting rights of six delegates representing Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa.
The House Committee of the Whole expired Wednesday, when the 112th Congress was sworn in. The House’s first order of business was the adoption of its House Rules and one of the many changes the new Republican leadership is implementing was to strip the D.C. and the U.S. territories the power to vote in the Committee of the Whole.
The loss of that power could mean lesser funding going to the territories, including Puerto Rico, since most appropriation bills are taken up by the House as a Committee of the Whole. The vote was crucial for Puerto Rico’s broad funding gains under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which is pumping more than $6 billion in additional federal moneys into the island. It also strengthened Pierluisi’s hand in pressing for Puerto Rico’s participation in the national health reform passed by President Obama.
Pierluisi and four of the other delegates are Democrats, while one, from the Northern Marianas Islands, is an independent.
The GOP decision to rescind the ability of delegates to vote on amendments on the House floor was the predictable outcome of a longtime party divide. Democrats extended the voting rights in 1993 when they controlled the House, Republicans disenfranchised the delegates when they became the majority in 1995 and Democrats restored delegate rights when they regained control of the House in 2007.
“This is a very undemocratic way to start the 112th Congress,” said Virgin Islands Del. Donna Christensen. With the new GOP rule, she said, “there are over 4.5 million Americans who don't get input into shaping the final bill.”
U.S. Rep. José Serrano, the Mayagüez-born veteran Bronx Democrat, blasted the move.
“This is a shameful step backwards that House Republicans took today, and it is a slap in the face of the millions of citizens and people living under the U.S. flag in these territories. They have had the ability to have their voices heard in the U.S. House of Representatives for only four short years, and there is no excuse for taking that right away from these duly elected leaders,” Serrano said.
The partisan battle has always been as much about political symbolism as the actual ability of delegates to influence national policy. Under the Democrats, delegates could vote on the floor on amendments — in what is known as the Committee of the Whole — but not on final passage. And their votes came with the stipulation that they could not change the outcome of a vote.
Delegates do have full voting rights at the committee level and can rise through the committee ranks.
Republicans have long argued that the Constitution, which says the House should be made up of representatives chosen by the “several states,” rules out voting by non-state delegates. The office of new House Speaker John Boehner said the new top man in the lower chamber of Congress “continues to believe that delegates should not vote in the Committee of the Whole because they constitutionally cannot vote on the House floor.”
“It's very apparent to me that we need to focus on the Constitution and (under the Constitution) states are to be represented in the House of Representatives,” said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif.
Republicans also point out that delegate votes violate the concept of equal representation. The average constituency for the 435 House representatives is about 700,000. While Puerto Rico has a population of almost 4 million and the District of Columbia 600,000, the other four, all territories, are considerably smaller. American Samoa has 95,000 residents, and The Northern Marianas 48,000.
But Democrats counter that, when Republicans sued to reverse the 1993 extension of voting rights, two federal courts ruled that Congress had acted within constitutional bounds. They also point out that the delegates represent U.S. citizens who serve in the military and are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“To me it is unseemly in the 21st century that anyone would be stripped of a vote,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has represented Washington D.C. since 1991.
Holmes Norton said the loss of limited voting rights was a “very bitter pill” for the people of the District, who a year ago where within sight of gaining a full vote in the House. The Senate voted to give the District a fully vested representative, but attached an amendment to weaken the District's tough gun control laws that was unacceptable to some House Democrats.
Holmes Norton led an unsuccessful charge to protect her Committee of the Whole vote, which in the case of D.C. is seen as an important step in its push for a full vote in Congress.
New Washington Mayor Vincent Gray said at a protest rally Tuesday that the GOP move to remove Holmes Norton's remaining voting rights was “the most outrageous insult imaginable.”
Norton sought to prevent adoption of the new rule by offering a motion to set up a special committee to study the delegate voting issue, but it was defeated on a party-line vote.
The Republican Party’s capture of control of the House in the November midterm ended the leadership positions of the three sitting stateside Puerto Rican lawmakers — Democratic Party Reps. José Serrano, Nydia Velázquez and Luis Gutiérrez.
Pierluisi has acknowledged that the Republican takeover could pose a danger to the funding that Puerto Rico received under the national health reform plan.
In their “Pledge to America” campaign promise, Republicans have vowed to cut federal spending and repeal the national health reform. The administration of Gov. Luis Fortuño is relying on the additional funding to expand the government’s health plan for the island poor, which has been revamped into the Mi Salud program.
With the GOP in control of the House, political pundits say Gov. Luis Fortuño, considered an up-and-comer in the national Republican Party, will take more active role in pressing Puerto Rico’s interests in Congress. Pierluisi, a national Democrat, could in turn direct more of his efforts to the White House and the Democratic administration of Obama.
Fortuño, a former resident commissioner with strong ties on Capitol, headed the 2008 New Progressive Party ticket with running-mate Pierluisi.
“We are a winning team. He takes care of the Republicans and I take care of the Democrats. This is good for Puerto Rico,” Pierluisi told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS shortly before the midterm election.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.