Always on the bench

Nonvoting congressional delegates from Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa watch as dispute continues over giving the District of Columbia a vote in the House

November 08, 2007|By Gabrielle Russon | Gabrielle Russon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Donna Christensen, then new in Congress, was passionately opposed to the motion to impeach President Bill Clinton in December 1998. Whatever his mistakes, Christensen believed, Clinton did not deserve to be removed from office.

But Christensen, who represents the Virgin Islands, could not vote. She was reduced to speaking on the House floor only after the impeachment vote and declared that if she could have, she would have voted no.

"We're all generally forgotten or on the back burner," Christensen said recently, referring to herself and the four other nonvoting delegates in the House. "We're not often considered when legislation is being passed."

Those delegates - from the Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the District of Columbia - have much of the prestige and many of the same perquisites as other members of Congress. They have offices, salaries and speaking privileges similar to those of representatives from the 50 states.

But when it comes to voting on a bill, a lawmaker's true source of power, they are shut out. It's the political equivalent of earning a spot on a baseball team but never being allowed to bat.

Madeleine Bordallo, who represents Guam, noted that delegates can do all the work involved in putting together a bill - writing it, introducing it, moving it through committee - but cannot take that final step. "It's like building a home," Bordallo said. "You can put it all together, then you just can't put the roof on."

The nonvoting delegates captured the spotlight again recently when a bill to grant a vote to Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia, was defeated. Residents of Washington vow to keep trying, and the issue is a big one here; The city's license plates bear the frustrated slogan "Taxation Without Representation."

Like Christensen, Norton wanted to vote against impeaching Clinton. She even rose during the debate to ask that she be allowed to vote on that one occasion. Because Washington residents can vote for president, she argued, their representative should be allowed to vote on whether to force the president from office.

"The same Constitution that gives the district the vote for president must recognize the right of district residents to representation for a vote on removal of the president," Holmes argued. But her appeal was rejected.

The territories represented by the nonvoting delegates became affiliated with the U.S. in different ways and times. Puerto Rico and Guam were prizes from the Spanish-American War, while the United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917. American Samoa became a U.S. territory through an 1899 treaty between Germany and the United States.

These islands never became states for various reasons. Some, like Guam, were too small and far away for the U.S. to incorporate. "It's not really America in the geographic sense," said DePaul University history professor Robert Garfield.

Others, such as Puerto Rico, were considered too culturally different to assimilate into American culture.

"There was a lot of anxiety [about] admitting people of color who weren't necessarily English-speakers," said Kristin Hoganson, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Instead, the United States developed a "big brother" relationship to the territories, which elect legislatures to run their internal affairs.

The District of Columbia has been denied congressional representation because, when it was created, it was decided that the national capital should not be part of any state.

But Norton has fought hard to gain voting power, pointing out that her constituents, unlike those of the territories, pay federal income taxes and vote for president. With about 580,000 people, Washington has almost 65,000 more residents than Wyoming.

Republicans have been concerned about giving the district a full representative, in part because it would virtually guarantee an additional Democrat in the House. So sponsors of the most recent bill incorporated a provision giving Utah as well as the district an additional House seat. Utah's almost certainly would be Republican.

Ultimately, however, the bill succumbed in the Senate to a GOP filibuster. Republicans argued that the Constitution specifically says only states are to be fully represented in Congress.

"My opposition to this bill rests instead on a single all-important fact: It is clearly and unambiguously unconstitutional," Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told his colleagues. "The framers spelled it out explicitly in the original text."

The other four delegates are not pushing as hard for a vote, at least not any time soon.

"We don't pay federal income taxes," said Eni Faleomavaega of American Samoa. "Why should we be allowed to vote?"

But Bordallo disagreed. "It's only fair," she said. "Anybody who represents U.S. constituencies should be given the right to have a representative in Congress."

The delegates can vote in committee. They can even vote occasionally on the floor - when the House meets, for parliamentary reasons, as a large committee. But even then, the delegates' votes can be challenged and a new vote held without them, which inevitably happens if the tally is close.

Bordallo added that she often goes to the floor for a vote, even though she can't participate.

"Sometimes," she said, "I just stick around."

Gabrielle Russon writes for the Chicago Tribune.

All but the vote

Delegates from the Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the District of Columbia have much of the prestige and many of the same perquisites as other members of Congress. But when it comes to voting on bills, they are shut out.

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