Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of the United States, Canada and Mexico

Delegates to the U.S. Congress: History and Current Status *

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of the United States, Canada and Mexico

Delegates to the U.S. Congress: History and Current Status *

Article excerpt


The office of territorial delegate predates the Constitution, having been created by the Continental Congress through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Constitution itself is silent on the issue of territorial representation, but this statutory authority was extended under the Constitution, and territorial Delegates have been a regular part of congressional operations since. Through most of the 19th century, territorial Delegates represented areas that were ultimately on the way to statehood.

With U.S. acquisition of overseas territories following the 1898 SpanishAmerican War, however, Congress created the post of Resident Commissioner to represent those areas which had, by treaty or law, a different relationship to the federal government. The office of Resident Commissioner was used by the Congress to permit representation in the House in only two instances. The Philippine Islands were represented by two Resident Commissioners until independence was declared in 1946. Puerto Rico has been represented by a single Resident Commissioner since 1902.[1]

Following the admission of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union in 1959, Puerto Rico was left as the only territory represented in Congress. Beginning in the 1970s, however, Congress returned to the concept of Delegate to provide representation to other territories and the District of Columbia.[2]

In the 112th Congress, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia are each represented in Congress by a Delegate to the House of Representatives.[3]

The Delegates enjoy many, but not all, of the powers and privileges of House Members from the states.


Northwest Ordinance

The office of Delegate-sometimes called "nonvoting Delegate"-dates to the late 1700s, when territories bound for statehood were granted congressional representation. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which was enacted under the Articles of Confederation in order to establish a government for the territory northwest of the Ohio River, provided for a territorial Delegate.[4]

Earlier, the Ordinance of 1784 had made provision for territorial representation in Congress, but it had never been put into effect.[5]

Following ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the first Congress reenacted the Northwest Ordinance.[6] The ordinance specified that the government of the Northwest Territory would initially consist of a governor and other officials appointed by Congress. According to Section 9, once the free adult male population in the district [7] reached 5,000, qualified voters would be able to elect representatives from their counties or townships to a house of representatives.[8] This territorial house, together with an appointed legislative council, would elect a Delegate to Congress. As stated in Section 12 of the Northwest Ordinance:

As soon as a legislature shall be formed in the district, the Council and house assembled in one room, shall have authority by joint ballot to elect a Delegate to Congress, who shall have a seat in Congress, with a right of debating, but not of voting, during this temporary Government.[9]

The Delegate's duties, privileges, and obligations, were otherwise left unspecified.

First Delegate

In 1790, Congress extended all the privileges authorized in the Northwest Ordinance to the inhabitants of the territory south of the Ohio River and provided that "the government of the said territory south of the Ohio, shall be similar to that which is now exercised in the territory northwest of the Ohio."[10]

Four years later, the territory south of the Ohio river sent the first territorial Delegate to Congress.[11] On November 11, 1794, James White presented his application to the House of Representatives for seating in the Third Congress.[12] A House committee reported Mr. White's application favorably and submitted a resolution to admit him, touching off a wideranging discussion on the House floor about the Delegate's proper role. …

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