GOP Sues the Democrats On a House Rules Change

Giving nonelected delegates to House a vote said to be `power grab'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AS President-elect Clinton prepares to take over the White House, Republican anger is boiling over on Capitol Hill.

The trouble: a decision by Democrats to grant votes on the floor of the House of Representatives to the five delegates from American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia.

All five delegates are Democrats.

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The Democratic action is unprecedented. Never in 204 years of congressional history has anyone except elected representatives from the states voted in the House. Republicans are crying foul, and going to court.

There is serious danger here for Mr. Clinton, for an angry GOP minority could slow, or even undercut, some of his forthcoming programs.

Democrats are drawing a firestorm of criticism, but are refusing to back down. The Chicago Tribune calls their decision a "greedy power grab" and "a blatant end run around the Constitution." The New York Times asks: "Have the House Democrats No Shame?" and terms the action "outrageous."

USA Today points out that since residents of territories like Guam and American Samoa pay no taxes to the United States Treasury, "their voting status would mean representation without taxation, a curious and unjust twist on American history." Untaxed can tax

Rep. Gerald Solomon of New York, the ranking Republican member of the House Rules Committee, says the Democrats have created an intolerable situation. The delegates now can vote to raise taxes on Americans, even though they pay none themselves.

The dispute may be settled by the courts, but that could take time. Late last week, 12 Republican members of Congress filed suit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. They requested a judgment that non-member voting is unlawful and an injunction to prevent the counting of delegate votes.

The new rules, approved on a party-line vote in the House, are described as a "reform package" by their author, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D) of New York.

Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the delegate from the District of Columbia, calls the rules an "historic change," and denounced criticism as "partisan."

She said that failure to give voting rights to the delegates was a denial of representation to 5 million people who live under the American flag. As for the Republicans, she said in a statement:

"By this frivolous lawsuit, the Republicans reveal themselves to be hypocrites, demanding democracy abroad while denying it at home." She added: "Pretoria and Moscow will be confused and amused."

At the heart of this dispute is Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution. It states: "The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several States...."

It continues: "No person shall be a Representative who shall not have ... been seven years a citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen."

Since the delegates are not residents of the states, nor are they elected by the people of the states, they clearly fail to qualify, Republicans say.

Democrats counter that delegates will vote only when the House is assembled as "the Committee of the Whole."

In their suit, the GOP argues that the Committee of the Whole is "the principal forum in which the ... House ... debates and amends legislation." So it is "the heart of the chamber's operations." Final passage of all legislation comes in the full House, when these delegates will not vote. Earlier example

A similar question arose in 1970, when there was discussion about extending voting privileges to the Puerto Rican delegate, who is known as the "resident commissioner." At that time the present Speaker of the House, Thomas Foley (D) of Washington, stated:

"It is very clear ... that a constitutional amendment would be required to give the resident commissioner a vote in the Committee of the Whole or the full House."

Democrats seek to answer their constitutional critics in the new rules by declaring that if the delegates' votes are decisive on any bill, then their votes won't count. Or as Rep. Robert Walker (R) of Pennsylvania put it sarcastically:

"When they vote when it counts, it does not count; and when it does not count, it counts."

Political scientist David Mayhew at Yale University declares angrily: "The whole thing is an outrage. It's a power grab [by the Democrats]. I think it's unconstitutional."

Dr. Mayhew says if Democrats want these jurisdictions to be represented in Congress, there is a 200-year-old process for doing that. They should be admitted as states. But such a development is unlikely. The District of Columbia has pushed for statehood for years, with little success. On the other hand, American Samoa, with just over 40,000 residents, would have little prospect of gaining statehood, which would give it two senators and one representative, the same as Montana with a population of 800,000.

The new rule also allows the delegates to preside over the House, including the delegate from American Samoa. Perhaps unknown to many Democrats is that the delegate from Samoa does not have to be a US citizen.

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