The U.S. federal government has three branches: the executive, or the White House; the judicial, or the courts; and the legislative, or Congress, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Puerto Rico doesn’t have a voice in presidential elections, except for votes in the primaries. The territory has one non-voting representative in the House of Representatives, the Resident Commissioner. And now the representative from Guam, Michael San Nicolas, has proposed that each territory should also have a non-voting representative in the Senate.
The Resident Commissioner can do a lot of the same things that other congressional reps can do. She can introduce bills and sit on committees, can vote in committees and speak on the House floor. She can vote in Congress right now, but with limitations.
First, we say she can vote right now because the current Congress allows resident commissioners to vote, but this is not always the case. Under the previous Congress, the resident commissioner was not allowed to vote. This is a good example of the fact that Congress can change the rules for Puerto Rico at any time. Any step toward equality for the territory of Puerto Rico is temporary. As a state, Puerto Rico would have rights and responsibilities that it cannot count on as a territory.
Second, if her vote makes a difference to the outcome of the vote, Congress votes again without her. That is, if her vote makes any difference, it is ignored. She therefore has only a symbolic vote.
This is true even when the law being voted on is all about Puerto Rico. The resident commissioner cannot cast the deciding vote on whether cockfighting should be allowed in Puerto Rico, how much funding should be given to the Island, or even the political status of Puerto Rico.
What’s more, Puerto Rico would have four congressional reps if it were a state, but has only one as a territory. Obviously, the Island will have much more power and influence as a state than as a territory.
The number of congresspeople for each state depends on the population of the states. In the Senate, however, there are always just two Senators for each state. California and Texas get two, and Wyoming and Rhode Island get two. The size and population of the states doesn’t matter.
Under the new bill, H.R. 6941 – Territorial Representation in the Senate Act, each territory would have one representative in the Senate. This delegate would be a non-voting representative, just as the Resident Commissioner now is.
The bill specifies that the delegate would be elected by a plurality of voters (that is, the person with the highest number of votes would get the job, as is normal in the United States). They would have a six year term.
The delegate would have to be a citizen of the United States for nine years before being elected, and would need to be at least 30 years old. Each territory could determine how many years candidates would have to live in the territory before they could run for this office, but they would certainly have to live in the territory they represented.
The delegate would receive whatever salary and benefits state senators receive.
Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, the current Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, pointed out in her remarks in Congress on Citizenship Day that she has to ask state senators for help in the Senate.
Puerto Rico has no representation in the Senate, and Rep. Gonzalez-Colon cannot sit in or introduce bills in the Senate. She can’t serve on Senate committees. Puerto Rico has no representation in the Senate at all.
Having a non-voting representative would be better than having no representative at all.
It would not be as good as having two Senators, which will happen as soon as Puerto Rico becomes a state.
H.J. Res. 97
It is worth noting that another bill about the Senate was introduced in the 116th Congress. This bill, HJ 97, made the bizarre suggestions that the Senate be capped at 100 by refusing representation to new states. That is, new states admitted after 2019 just wouldn’t have senators at all.
This bill was a response to statehood movements for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. It had no cosponsors and did not become law. If Congress had voted for it, it would have required ratification by two thirds of the existing states.
HR 6941 is being considered. As of this writing, it has two cosponsors: the delegates for DC and the Virgin Islands.