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New congress rules restrict participation in committees

By Jayvee L. Vallejera SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 6, 2011) – When the U.S. House of Representatives took up the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) as a committee of the whole in 2009, the five delegates of U.S. territories and the District of Columbia and the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico were among those who voted for its passage.

That happened because, based on the 111th House Rules, representatives of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia-who usually have non-voting status on the House floor-are allowed to vote on bills considered by the committee of the whole.

That power, however, will expire today, when the 112th Congress is sworn in. Besides the election of Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House's first order of business is the adoption of its House Rules and one of the many changes the new Republican leadership will implement is to strip the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and other U.S. territories the power to vote in the committee of the whole.

"[Delegates] will be stripped of that right and that's unfortunate because that's a way for the delegates to express the views of the 4 million Americans who live in these non-state areas, so that their views are also taken into consideration when legislation is passed by the House of Representatives," said Robert J. Schwalbach, chief of staff of CNMI Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan.

That could mean lesser funding going to the territories, including the Northern Marianas, since most appropriation bills are taken up by the House as a committee of the whole. By how much? Consider the ARRA bill, one of Sablan's first votes in the committee of the whole. That measure has resulted in US$113.74 million being awarded to the Commonwealth as of Sept. 30, 2010, according to Recovery.gov. Of that amount, US$32.36 million has already been received, creating or retaining 333 jobs in the Northern Marianas.

Sablan assured, though, that this rule change will not hamper his efforts to make himself and the Northern Mariana Islands heard. "Hey, that doesn't stop me from going on the floor and just bugging everyone. And I do, I go down and I bug people! (Laughs) I do that. Pedro Pierluisi [of Puerto Rico] does that. Donna [Christensen of the U.S. Virgin Islands] does that. Eleanor [H. Norton of the District of Columbia] does that."

In the Democrat-controlled 111th Congress, Sablan said he was present 90 percent of the time when the House went into a committee of the whole.

He shrugged when asked for the reason behind the rule change. "That's just how the Republicans do it; they just never allow delegates to vote. Democrats do. I've made some efforts to convince them otherwise but apparently that's fallen on the wayside. Schwalbach said this is a done deal. The Republicans announced sometime ago that they were going to do this. The delegates have all written to the incoming leadership asking for a meeting, asking for a reconsideration of this issue. There's been no formal response to the delegates' formal request and staff people have said that. There’s no time to talk about it. In other words, 'we're doing it,'" he said.

Schwalbach expects the House's first session today to be lively when it comes time to adopt the refurbished House Rules.

"I'm sure there'll be considerable amount of debate on the Rules because there will be changes to the existing Rules that the Republican majority is proposing that will be criticized by the Democratic minority," he said.

A committee of the whole is when the entire House of Representatives is considered one large committee. All members of the body become members of the committee to facilitate debate, usually on appropriation matters.

"In the committee of the whole, it's designed for those kinds of issues, those kinds of debates. It's more flexible," Sablan said.

The committee of the whole, once it acts on a bill, reports to the House and that's where delegates don't get to vote.

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