Like Members, Delegates and Resident Commissioners represent their constituents in the U.S. House of Representatives. Although they are afforded many of the same rights and responsibilities as voting Members, Delegates and Resident Commissioners may not vote when the House is meeting as the Committee of the Whole nor when the House is operating as the House of Representatives.
Office of the Delegate
Delegates have served in the U.S. House of Representatives since the late 1700’s. The office of the Delegate was established by the Continental Congress through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Ordinance, however, did not outline the duties, privileges, and obligations of the position. In fact, the original legislation did not even designate which Chamber of Congress Delegates should belong to. After debate between the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, and it was eventually decided that all Delegates should serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Delegates, elected every two years, represent incorporated territories. Currently, there is one Delegate each from the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Office of the Resident Commissioner
The role of Resident Commissioner was created by Congress in 1900, after securing Puerto Rico and the Philippines as territories during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Following the precedent set by Delegates, Resident Commissioners were added to the roster of the U.S. House of Representatives. Although treated similarly to Delegates, Resident Commissioners were not granted the right to speak on the House floor or serve on committees until 1904. Before that time, they discussed legislation with Members in congressional testimony and through personal lobbying.
Resident Commissioners, elected every four years, represent unincorporated territories. Puerto Rico is the only unincorporated territory.
The U.S. Constitution makes no provision for territorial representation and early laws providing for territorial Delegates to Congress did not specify the duties, privileges, and obligations of the office. Over time, their responsibilities have become very similar to Members and include:
- Representing constituents in Congress by acting as an ambassador for the industries and products of their territory and advocating on behalf of its economic needs and political interests.
- Serving constituents by communicating with them, assisting them in obtaining Federal benefits and grants, and seeking Federal funds for local projects and programs.
- Debating and updating legislation in committees, and questioning witnesses in committee hearings.
- Participating in floor debate, offering amendments to bills, and planning legislative and political strategies with their colleagues.
- Managing their district and Washington, D.C. offices, including overseeing personnel.
- Raising money to campaign for re-election, deciding on campaign strategies, and supporting candidates for local and state political offices.
Differences from Members
While Delegates and Resident Commissioners share many of the same rights and responsibilities as Members, there are a few distinct differences between the roles.
Delegates and Resident Commissioners do not vote on the House floor. Although they are able to introduce bills and make amendments to them on the House floor, in addition to voting on them in Committees, Delegates and Resident Commissioners are unable to vote the final passage of legislation.
Members opposed to allowing Delegates and Resident Commissioners to vote on the House floor use Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which defines that the Members of the U.S. House of Representatives “shall be…chosen every second Year by the People of the several States.” Because Delegates and Resident Commissioners represent territories rather than states, they are not given the power to pass or reject legislation.
Election cycles between Members, Delegates, and the Resident Commissioner also differ. Members and Delegates are up for election every two years, while the Resident Commissioner is up for election every four years. Initially, the Resident Commissioner served a two year term similar to Members and Delegates but Congress later extended it to a four year term at the request of the Puerto Rican government.