Because Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico has no senators and no voting congressional representatives. Every state has two senators, plus reps in the House of Representatives based on the population of the state.
Puerto Rico is not currently a state, so the people of the Island have just one person to speak for them in Congress: the Resident Commissioner. The Resident Commissioner is the official representative of Puerto Rico in Congress. He or she can introduce bills and participate in discussions and debates, serve on committees and speak as a member of Congress. But the Resident Commissioner cannot vote on bills — even the bills he or she has introduced.
When it came time for Congress to vote on PROMESA, the law put in place to help Puerto Rico out of the debt crisis, Pedro Pierluisi, the current Resident Commissioner, did not have a vote. He represents Puerto Rico in Congress, but he had no vote on that bill that affected Puerto Rico so directly.
Steny H. Hoyer, the Democratic Whip, sent a letter this week to House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, asking that Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner (and the other non-voting delegates) be allowed to vote in Congress. This is not the full voting representation that states have. They would be allowed to vote in “the Committee of the Whole” — what most people would call Congress. If their votes make a difference to the outcome of the vote, though, Congress can take another vote without them.
Imagine a meeting of 11 people where one is the Resident Commissioner. If a vote ends up with 6 votes one way and 5 votes the other way, with the Resident Commissioner on the winning side, the committee gets to ask the Resident Commissioner to sit out a new vote, with just the other 10 people voting. This is what the Congress gave the non-voting representatives: the right to vote only if it made no difference.
That’s not a lot to offer the Resident Commissioner. But, as Pierluisi said when he protested the loss of that vote in 2012, it shows respect for Puerto Rico and allows the views of the Island’s residents to be recorded.
The non-voting representatives had this limited voting ability from 1993 to 1995. They got it back again in 2007 and had it until 2011, when they lost it again.
States do not gain or lose the ability to vote at the pleasure of Congress, but Puerto Rico and the other territories do. They get what the current Congress wants them to have, and they can lose it again.
Will Hoyer be able to get this small taste of democracy back for the Resident Commissioner? Maybe. Until the next time Congress decides to take it away.Nothing but statehood will give Puerto Rico the rights that states have.