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Up close without a vote: Delegates weigh in on speakership mess

The three Democratic and three Republican delegates can observe, but have no say on the House floor

Del. James C. Moylan of Guam is one of three delegates in the House Republican Conference.
Del. James C. Moylan of Guam is one of three delegates in the House Republican Conference. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

While the Republican-on-Republican donnybrook to pick a House speaker continues with no end in sight, no spectators have had a better view of the chaos than the six delegates from territories and the District of Columbia.

So, what’s it been like to be so close, yet so far, from an internecine mess? 

“It is very frustrating,” said Del. Stacey Plaskett, a Democrat representing the U.S. Virgin Islands. “It’s kind of unnerving for your fate to be determined by other members. And you’re not engaged in the process.”

Del. James C. Moylan, a Republican representing Guam, doubled the enphasis: “It’s very, very frustrating,” he said.

“I felt particularly outraged not to be able to vote,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., because District residents pay the highest federal taxes per capita in the nation.

As delegates, they can sit on committees, propose legislation, offer amendments, and give speeches in the chamber. But they can’t vote on the House floor, which means they don’t get a formal say in who the speaker will be.

Still, the delegates say they do what they can to influence their colleagues. “I’ve really tried to be a member of Congress, who — while I have one hand tied behind my back — tries to do the most with the hand that’s available,” Plaskett said, “whether that’s being on committees that members from territories have not traditionally been given access to, or being present on the floor and voicing opinions and hopefully earning the respect of leadership.”

“I’ve been in every conference meeting,” said Moylan. “I go to every floor event as well to show that the territories need to be represented — just the presence of the territories is important there.”

Moylan and the other Republican delegates do get to vote in the GOP conference to nominate a speaker. He said he’s been frustrated that others in the party have refused to go along with the majority, first in January when Kevin McCarthy took 15 ballots to win the speakership, then when eight Republicans (and every Democrat) voted to oust him with the motion to vacate earlier this month, then again when Steve Scalise first won the nomination, and yet again when Jordan won the nomination after that.

Moylan says he doesn’t really care which Republican they pick as speaker — they just need to pick one. “My top priority right now is uniting this party and getting back to work,” he said.

“We still speak to our members, we let them know that I got important things in the NDAA, I need these appropriations bills to get approved on the floor. … I got the 360-degree missile defense for the island with an amendment in there for another $100 million that Admiral [John C.] Aquilino, the commander of [United States Indo-Pacific Command], said was his No. 1 unfunded priority.”

Regularly buffeted by hurricanes, the U.S. Virgin Islands needs the House to move on disaster relief funding, said Plaskett. Compared to McCarthy and Scalise, Jordan’s history of voting against that aid particularly worried her. “Having an individual who may be speaker, who’s almost hostile to the interest of people in the territories is a frightening proposition,” she said.

GOP leadership could make things easier on themselves by letting delegates vote for speaker, said Moylan, saying he and the other two GOP delegates – Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen of American Samoa and Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico — would vote for whoever the conference nominated.

“I told that to Kevin McCarthy at the start, when we got 15 rounds of voting. I said, ‘Kevin, if you would allow us to vote for speaker, then we would have had three more votes,’” Moylan said. “We could have ended that a lot sooner.”

Radewagen and González-Colón did not respond to requests for comment, while González-Colón tweeted her support for Scalise after he won the GOP’s nomination last week, but has not posted either way about Jordan’s subsequent bid.

Giving the territories and the District of Columbia a vote wouldn’t affect the partisan balance of the House right now; it would add three Republicans and three Democrats. But adding three loyal Republican votes to the mix would ever so slightly dilute the power of GOP holdouts.

Floor limits

The expansion of their voting privileges is an issue that unites the delegates across party lines. “Until we get statehood or something approaching [it] for voting rights, we will be left in the position that we were today, unable to vote for the speaker,” Holmes Norton said after Wednesday’s vote.

Plaskett raised the issue during the speakership vote at the start of the 115th Congress in 2017, making a parliamentary inquiry “as to why not — at this time, at this juncture in the United States — that the territories do not have a voice on this floor?”

It’s an open question whether the House could provide territorial delegates a vote on electing the speaker via a simple majority vote to change the chamber’s rules, or if it would require enacting a statute or even a constitutional amendment.

Article I, Section 2 states that the House be composed of representatives “chosen every second Year by the People of the several States,” leading to arguments in the course of the nation’s history over whether it would be unconstitutional to give a delegate representing a territory — not a state — the same powers as a member.

A 2022 Congressional Research Service report notes, though, that delegates from the territories have served with varying degrees of authority in the House since the nation’s founding. The Northwest Territories had a delegate under the Articles of Confederation, and in 1794, a “territory south of the Ohio [river]” sent James White to represent it in the Third Congress as the first delegate.

With Democrats in the majority, the House changed its rules in 1993 to allow delegates to vote when the House was acting in the Committee of the Whole but included a provision that if the delegates’ votes were decisive, then the House itself — where delegates can’t vote — would immediately hold a revote.

When a group of House members sued to challenge the rule change, a federal district court held that it was constitutional, but only because of the revote provision. An appellate court later affirmed that decision, writing “insofar as the rule change bestowed additional authority on the delegates, that additional authority is largely symbolic and is not significantly greater than that which they enjoyed serving and voting on the standing committees.”

While a protracted speakership fight like this is unprecedented in Washington, Moylan has seen it before in Guam’s capital Hagatna. “I went through this before back on my home island,” he said. “It was a fight for speakership back home as well. Democrats were in control, and they had their differences but they finally united. But the Republicans were able to influence the result of the speakership. That took some time.”

The battle to lead the 37th Guam Legislature between Democratic Sens. Therese Terlaje and Joe San Agustin ended when Terlaje struck a deal with the six Republicans in the minority to build a bipartisan coalition of support. With her own vote and that of two other Democrats, she won the gavel on a 9-6 vote.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Moylan thinks a Republican should work with Democrats — like by empowering Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry to move some must-pass bills. Speaking before Wednesday’s second floor vote on Jordan, Moylan declined to get into the merits of that idea, saying all Republicans should go along with what the majority decides in conference.  

Rather, the lesson Moylan took away from that fight, which he says he’s sharing with all his GOP colleagues, was just: “Folks just have to be able to put those personal issues aside.”

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