Getting a Foot in the (Chamber) Door

Resident Commissioner Federico Degetau of Puerto Rico/tiles/non-collection/6/6-19-text-degetau-nara.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration The first Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner in the United States Congress, Federico Degetau was a celebrated legal scholar, a novelist, and a politician in Puerto Rico and Spain. Thoroughly grounded in legal theory and political action, he arrived in Washington in 1901, to contend with House Rules that prohibited him from speaking or even sitting in the chamber.
When newly elected Resident Commissioner Federico Degetau of Puerto Rico, the first Member of Congress from the island territory, began his service in the 57th Congress (1901–1903), the media treated him with attentive curiosity. Senators and Representatives alike “cordially welcomed” Degetau to Capitol Hill and the House Post Office received a “considerable [amount] of mail” addressed to him before his arrival. Representative Henry Allen Cooper of Wisconsin, Chairman of the Committee on Insular Affairs, which oversaw American territories, welcomed Degetau and promised reassuringly to “make him at home in the quarters of that committee.” But despite the fanfare and expression of goodwill, Degetau remained unwelcome in the one place that served as the legislature’s nerve center: the House Floor.

Degetau’s lack of floor privileges (and his months’ long fight to secure them) resulted from the ambiguities of the Foraker Act of 1900, which established Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory. Although the legislation created a new congressional office, the “Resident Commissioner,” and recognized this official as the representative for Puerto Rico in Congress, textual ambiguity in the law denied the Resident Commissioner speaking privileges in and access to House Chamber (nor was he assigned to any committees). Testifying before Cooper’s committee, Degetau acknowledged the awkwardness of his position: “It is difficult . . . for many people to determine whether the commissioner . . . is an official of the local or of the Federal Government,” he admitted. In June 1902, 18 months after Degetau’s arrival, the House relented to media pressure and the urging of Chairman Cooper, changing its rules to grant Degetau access to the House Floor.

But the fight for Degetau’s full floor privileges was not over. Congressional allies submitted bills to designate Degetau a Territorial Delegate, with floor and speaking privileges as well as membership on designated committees, throughout the 57th and 58th Congress (1901–1905). Representative John Sharp Williams of Mississippi argued that there was no reason why the island “should not have upon this floor every power and privilege and advantage” of other territories. “How can the House know the wants of [Puerto Ricans] unless they have a representative?” asked Delegate Bernard Rodey of New Mexico, who also had limited House Floor privileges. “Citizens of the United States ought not to be left in that position.” Degetau eventually won speaking privileges on the House Floor and membership on the Committee on Insular Affairs (without the ability to accrue seniority) in February 1904. However, his victory was short-lived. He delivered one floor speech before leaving office at the end of the 58th Congress in March 1905. Yet Degetau’s successors looked and legislated a lot more like their other congressional colleagues—with a foot in the chamber door and a seat at the committee table.

Sources: William R. Tansill, “The Resident Commissioner to the United States from Puerto Rico: An Historical Perspective,” Revista jurídica de la Universidad de Puerto Rico 47, nos. 1–2 (1978): 68–106; R.B. Horton, ed., Committee on Insular Affairs Hearings, 1901–1903 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903); Washington Post, December 15, 1900; Washington Post, December 8, 1900; Washington Post, February 3, 1904; New York Times, February 3, 1904; Congressional Record, House, 58th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 February 1904): 1523–1529.