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WASHINGTON TODAY: Voteless Delegates Yearn for Greater Voice

November 16, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Eleanor Holmes Norton spoke more on the House floor this year than any other first-term lawmaker. But when it came to making decisions, she had less of a voice than any of them.

Norton, a District of Columbia Democrat, is one of five House delegates, quasi-members of Congress with offices on Capitol Hill and staff but no right to vote on the floor.

The nation’s capital is one of five places that send delegates to the House. It falls into a congressional nether world - not unrepresented but not fully represented either - along with Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa.

But the powerless status of these semi-lawmakers could end soon. Norton and other House Democrats are quietly pushing a proposed rules change that could give her, and perhaps the other delegates, the right to vote.

″She has made a very compelling case,″ said Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus.

Last summer, Norton suggested the change to the Democratic Caucus - at least for herself. Since District of Columbia residents pay federal income tax and serve in the military, she said, the capital should have a full-fledged voting member of the House.

At about that time Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Interior Committee, proposed voting privileges for all of the delegates.

The issue is now under study by the caucus and a House rules change may be in the offing when majority Democrats hold meetings in December.

While the issue seems clear - simply granting delegates voting rights - there are hidden complications.

For one, the proposal would allow floor voting by delegates only on amendments - when the House is functioning as one large committee.

As it stands now, delegates can vote in committee. And so, the reasoning goes, it is only a small step to allow them to vote in a so-called ″committee of the whole.″

But amendments adopted in that way can be dropped later when the bill is up for final passage by the House. And at that point delegates would not be allowed to vote.

The proposed rules change also could raise constitutional questions. Opponents argue that floor voting is a privilege the Constitution implies should be reserved only for full-fledged representatives. That can be altered only by a Constitutional amendment, they contend - not by a simple rules change.

All five delegates happen to be Democrats, or allied with the Democrats. Allowing them to vote could give the party a potential five-vote boost on some issues. Unsurprisingly, Republicans are opposed.

The delegate posts stem from the nation’s early years. As Americans moved west, new territories were added. At first, each was governed from Washington. But later it would be granted limited self-rule - including a delegate on Capitol Hill - as a step toward statehood.

In modern times, the premise of eventual statehood has vanished as a criterion for non-voting representation in the House.

Puerto Rico has had a delegate, who is called the resident commissioner, since 1900, after the country was annexed in the Spanish-American War. The District of Columbia, whose leaders renew the call for statehood virtually every year, briefly had a delegate during the 1870s and was granted its current representation in 1970. Guam and the Virgin Islands gained delegates in 1972 and American Samoa in 1978.

So even though delegates are not mentioned in the Constitution, they have been around since 1791 as a creature of Congress itself. And it is Congress that has set the ground rules for how they represent their far-flung constituencies.


EDITOR’S NOTE - Jim Drinkard has covered Congress for The Associated Press since 1981.

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