Crafting an Identity

The educational, occupational, and political backgrounds of Hispanic Members resembled those of their congressional colleagues. Modern Hispanic Members benefited from the efforts of their female and African-American predecessors, who had arrived in Congress in greater numbers, pioneered strategies to influence legislation, and developed means to juggle their political interests with those of their geographic and ethnic constituencies.21

Representatives and Senators

Modern Hispanic-American Members have profited from the rights their predecessors won in Congress; long-serving Members such as Texans Henry González and Kika de la Garza, for example, rose to chair the powerful Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs and Agriculture Committees, respectively.

Robert Garcia of New York and Herman Badillo of New York/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_06_garcia_robert_button.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Robert Garcia of New York served seven terms in the U.S. House, representing a Bronx-centered district. Like his predecessor, Herman Badillo, Garcia was of Puerto Rican heritage.
Like other groups of congressional minorities, this generation of Latino Members faced a choice: to concentrate on their own legislative agendas without overtly embracing Hispanic issues, or to adopt Hispanic causes as their own and serve as surrogate representatives for Hispanics living in other districts or states.22 Members like Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Robert Garcia of New York, and Albert Bustamante of Texas embraced these multiple roles. But surrogate representatives did not always represent national interests; often they championed issues that were unique to their districts. Other Members, such as Matthew Martínez of California, Henry Bonilla of Texas, and Ken Salazar, insisted they were not just “Hispanic politicians.”

Drawn by cultural ties, and responding to the wishes of New York City’s large Puerto Rican constituency, Representative Robert Garcia, who was of Puerto Rican descent—as was his predecessor Herman Badillo—helped nonvoting Resident Commissioners such as Jaime Fuster with Puerto Rico’s legislative agenda. Like their predecessors, the Resident Commissioners in this generation considered themselves to be ambassadors for Puerto Rico as well as active legislators. In addition to submitting legislation, they wrote editorials and spoke about Puerto Rico to a broad range of audiences.

Statutory Representatives

Jaime Fuster of Puerto Rico/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_07_fuster_jaime_pc.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Jaime Fuster served as Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner from 1985 to 1992 before resigning to become an associate justice on the insular supreme court.
A major development after 1977 was the addition to the House of new Territorial Delegates. Many were of Hispanic descent. In addition to the Resident Commissioner, who represented Puerto Rico, Territorial Delegates of Hispanic descent represented the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The increased numbers of Territorial Delegates allowed them to work together and pursue greater political and economic autonomy for their respective territories. In the fall of 1981, they formed the Congressional Territorial Caucus in response to threats to cut territorial budgets.23 Since they lacked a vote on the floor, Delegates and Resident Commissioners frequently testified before both House and Senate committees and subcommittees, hoping to influence legislation that was relevant to the territories. Delegates and Resident Commissioners concentrated on local issues much more often than their Hispanic colleagues who had a full vote.24 Their distance from many national issues meant their experiences on Capitol Hill differed greatly from those of their voting colleagues. The job was humbling and often isolating, and almost all of them expressed the same frustrations. “When lobbyists learn that you don’t have a vote, they don’t talk to you. Maybe it’s a blessing. I don’t get harassed,” Ben Blaz quipped in a 1986 New York Times feature on statutory representatives. Ron de Lugo said, “I can’t afford to have a big ego.” Resident Commissioner Jaime Fuster admitted, “There is a loneliness to this job,” echoing the sentiments voiced by his predecessor Luis Muñoz Rivera decades earlier.25 In 1993, when new House Rules gave statutory representatives the right to vote in the Committee of the Whole provided their vote did not determine the outcome of any particular measure, Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero-Barceló noted that the new right was “not really a vote, just an opportunity to participate.”26 But their participation was short-lived. The new Republican majority repealed the privilege at the start of the 104th Congress (1995–1997), though Democrats restored it when they controlled the chamber during the 110th and 111th Congresses (2007–2011).27

Winning congressional attention for their local agendas, and simply expressing their patriotism, sometimes proved difficult for Territorial Delegates. Representing an island that was removed from the U.S. mainland presented Guamanian Delegate Robert Underwood with numerous challenges. “I always point this out, that in the course of trying to do legislative work here in Congress, frequently when legislation is passed, unless it specifically mentions Guam or it specifically mentions territories, it is normally ignored,” he said.28 Underwood often made a point of including his island in legislative discussions whenever possible, such as when he successfully lobbied for Guam’s inclusion in the national World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.29

Leadership Opportunities

House Party Leadership

House leadership opportunities for Hispanic Americans expanded as their numbers and length of service increased, allowing them to accrue the requisite seniority to participate in party leadership. For example, only three Hispanic Members won their first House election in 1982, but all of them went on to serve more than 10 years. In 1992, 10 Hispanic Members were first elected, and eight served more than 10 years. At the start of the 112th Congress (2011–2013), 31 total Hispanic Members of Congress served in the House and Senate, and 14 had served in Congress for 10 years or more.30

Speaker Thomas Foley of Washington and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_08_chc_foley_na.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Speaker Thomas Foley of Washington (center) meets with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. As post-Watergate reforms decentralized power in the House, Speakers began to broaden their leadership circles to appeal to a greater number of rank-and-file Members.

Leadership opportunities for Hispanic Members also increased as a result of the legislative reforms of the 1970s. These changes decentralized power in Congress, made individual House Members more influential, and provided greater coordinating authority within House leadership. To operate in this new environment, Speakers quickly learned that effective leadership required building a bigger, more diverse inner circle. In addition to the Speaker, the Majority Leader, and the Majority Whip, leadership in the House began to expand, including the chair and vice-chair of the party caucus and the four deputy whips.31

Contemporary Hispanic Members of Congress were elected to a number of leadership positions in the House Democratic Caucus. In 1987, California’s Tony Coelho became the first elected Democratic Whip. This is the highest congressional party leadership post that any Hispanic American has achieved to date. Coelho first came to the attention of party leaders through his fundraising talents, quickly leading to his appointment as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) as a sophomore Member.32 This positioned him to recruit strong candidates for House races and build a broad base of support among Members during his rise to power.33 In late 2002 Robert Menendez was elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus after serving as its vice chairman since 1998. Menendez held the chairmanship until December 2005, shortly before he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in January 2006.

Bill Richardson of New Mexico, William Gray III of Pennsylvania, and Esteban Torres of California/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_09_richardson_torres_na.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Bill Richardson of New Mexico (left) confers with fellow House Members William Gray III of Pennsylvania (center) and Esteban Torres of California (right).

Beyond the elected leadership positions in the House and within the Democratic Caucus, the Speaker has the discretion to create new appointed positions with leadership responsibilities. In 1977, for instance, Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill of Massachusetts authorized the Democratic Whip, John Brademas of Indiana, to expand the whip organization to include a broader coalition. By the beginning of the 1990s, almost one in five Democratic Members served in the whip system.34 Among the Hispanic Members appointed Chief Deputy Whip were Bill Richardson of New Mexico (1993), Robert Menendez of New Jersey (1997), and Ed Pastor of Arizona (1999); Esteban Torres of California became a Deputy Whip in 1991.35 More recently, then-Minority Leader and future Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California appointed fellow Californian Xavier Becerra to the post of Assistant to the Speaker in 2006.36

Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_10_diaz_balart_lincoln_pc1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida served in two Republican leadership positions during his service in the House from 1993 to 2011. In 1995, Diaz-Balart won a spot on the Rules Committee; in 2001, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois appointed him to the Republican Policy Committee, which develops the party’s legislative agenda.
Because of the smaller number of Hispanic Republican Members, only two Members served in a Republican leadership position. In 2001, Lincoln Diaz-Balart was appointed to the committee that develops policies for the Republican Conference. When the Republicans gained control of the House in 1995, Diaz-Balart was appointed to the Rules Committee, which determines the conditions under which major bills are debated. He remained there until his retirement from the House in 2011. Representative Devin Nunes of California was appointed assistant majority whip in his first term in the 108th Congress (2003–2005). He was later appointed vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Senate Party Leadership

Four Hispanics served in the Senate during this period, making it improbable that any of them would hold a leadership position, but Robert Menendez became chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in late 2008.37 On the Republican side, Senator Mel Martinez was elected in early 2007 as chairman of the Republican National Committee, to raise funds and act as the party’s principal spokesman. But after 10 months he left the position “to get back to my main job, my real obligation and passion”—serving Florida in the Senate.38

Hispanic Committee Leaders and Assignments

Members such as Robert Garcia and California’s Edward Roybal used their positions as subcommittee chairmen to draw attention to legislative interests that benefited their districts and Hispanic Americans generally. Overall, many Members of this generation gained institutional seniority during their long careers and held prominent committee assignments. Moreover, Hispanic Members’ continuous service provided them a pathway to committee and subcommittee leadership by enabling them to gain expertise in certain policy areas.

House Committee Assignments

The Interior and Insular Affairs Committee (also called the Natural Resources or Resources Committee) was the most popular assignment for House Hispanic Members during this period. Twenty-six Hispanic Members served on this panel, which regulates the U.S. territories, public lands, and water and environmental issues.39 These issues were popular among Southwestern and Western Members, as well as among Territorial Delegates and the Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners. A total of 10 Resident Commissioners and Hispanic Territorial Delegates served on this panel.40

Robert Garcia of New York and President Ronald Reagan/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_11_garcia_reagan_na.xml Image courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library/National Archives and Records Administration As the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus from 1981 to 1984, New York’s Robert Garcia (right) represented Hispanic interests in meetings with President Ronald Reagan.

Eighteen Hispanic Members served on the Education and Labor Committee (also called the Education and the Workforce Committee and the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee) and the same number served on the Foreign Affairs Committee (also called the International Relations Committee). Clearly, those committees with jurisdiction over bilingual education, immigration, labor, loans for small businesses, and relations with Latin American countries provide numerous opportunities for Hispanic Members to shape policy. Hispanic Members were also assigned to the House’s most prestigious committees more often than in previous generations. The Appropriations, Rules, and Ways and Means Committees are exclusive assignments, meaning that Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus rules require Members serving on these committees to relinquish their other committee assignments. Additionally, the scope of these panels spans the entire federal government.41 Thus, belonging to these committees immediately vaults a Member to the center of the House leadership circle.

In previous generations, only four Hispanic Members served on one of these choice panels; Joachim Octave Fernández of Louisiana, Antonio M. Fernández of New Mexico, Joseph Montoya of New Mexico, and Edward Roybal of California served on the Appropriations Committee. Of the Hispanic Members first elected since 1976, 20 have served on prestigious committees. (The Appropriations Committee has had 12 Hispanic members, Budget has had seven, Ways and Means has had three, and Rules has had two.)42 Three Hispanic Members first elected since 1976 have risen to subcommittee chairmanships on one of these committees. Henry Bonilla of Texas became chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies. His 2001 appointment as one of the “cardinals” of the House—a reference to the 12 Appropriations subcommittee chairmen—passed over two more-senior colleagues.43 Representative José Serrano of New York was another cardinal, chairing the Subcommittee on Financial Services and Government Reform in the 110th and 111th Congresses. Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida also chaired the Legislative and Budget Process Subcommittee under the Rules Committee in the 109th Congress (2005–2007).

Edward Roybal of California and Kika del la Garza of Texas/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_12_de_la_garza_roybal_na.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Edward Roybal of California (second from left), chairs a congressional hearing in 1992. Congressional Hispanic Caucus colleague Kika de la Garza of Texas (far left) sits next to Roybal.

In previous generations, only a handful of Hispanic Members chaired subcommittees. Forty-one percent of Hispanic Members first elected since 1976 (22 of 54) chaired at least one subcommittee; eight have chaired multiple subcommittees. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida chaired the most subcommittees, four under the International Relations Committee (she went on to chair the full committee): Africa; International Economic Policy and Trade; International Operations and Human Rights; and the Middle East and Central Asia.44

Senate Committee Assignments

The Senate has a less hierarchical structure and a much smaller membership than the House, so the role of committees and subcommittees in that chamber is very different. With far fewer Senators, each serves on many more committees, diluting the importance of a single prestigious panel.45 The four Hispanic Senators serving in this era held committees assignments covering issues that were relatively similar to those covered by their House colleagues; three (Mel Martinez, Ken Salazar, and Robert Menendez) served on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Martinez, Menendez, and Marco Rubio of Florida have served on the Foreign Relations Committee.46

Two Hispanic Senators elected since 1976 have attained subcommittee leadership. Martinez chaired the Subcommittee on African Affairs (under the Foreign Relations Committee) in the 109th Congress. Menendez has chaired three subcommittees during his Senate career including two in the 112th Congress: Housing, Transportation and Community Development Subcommittee (under the Banking Committee); and of the Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Global Narcotics Affairs Subcommittee (under the Foreign Relations Committee).47

Next Section


21Office of History and Preservation, Women in Congress, 1917–2006; Office of History and Preservation, Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2007.

22For a useful essay on surrogate representation within a larger discussion about “descriptive” versus “substantive” representation, see Michele L. Swers and Stella M. Rouse, “Descriptive Representation: Understanding the Impact of Identity on Substantive Representation of Group Interests,” in The Oxford Handbook of the American Congress, Eric Schickler and Frances E. Lee, eds., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011): 241–271.

23It is unclear how long the Territorial Caucus operated. There is only one reference to the Territorial Caucus in the Spring 1985 House Telephone Directory. Newspaper references indicate that the Territorial Caucus may have lost funding in 1995. See Karla Vallance, “All Is Not Quiet with Far-Flung US Territories Either …,” 12 May 1982, Christian Science Monitor: 4; United States House of Representatives Telephone Directory, Spring 1985 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1985): 288; Michael Ross, “GOP Plans to Cut Funds for Black Caucus, Others,” 7 December 1994, Los Angeles Times: A1; Ann L. Brownson, ed., 1994 Congressional Staff Directory (Mt. Vernon, VA: Staff Directories Ltd., 1994): 968; Jeffrey L. Farrow, “‘Benefits’ in Puerto Rico,” 8 November 2006, New York Times: A22.

24Abraham Holtzman, “Empire and Representation: The U.S. Congress,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 11 (1986): 249–273, especially p. 269.

25Philip Shenon, “In the House, But without Votes,” 12 April 1985, New York Times: A14.

26Robert Friedman, “P.R. Commissioner Speaks His Piece on the House Floor,” 6 January 1993, San Juan Star: 3; Friedman, “CBR Gets Diluted Right to Vote,” 6 January 1993, San Juan Star: 3; Friedman, “Romero Co-Sponsors Bill to Permit Family Leave,” 7 January 1993, San Juan Star: 4; Betsy Palmer, “Delegates to the U.S. Congress: History and Current Status,” 29 April 2009, Rep. R40555, CRS: 10.

27Palmer, “Delegates to the U.S. Congress: History and Current Status”: 10; Peterson, “Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico”: 5–6.

28Congressional Record, House, 105th Cong., 1st sess. (10 February 1997): H401.

29Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (15 May 2001): 8074; Scott Radway, “Delegate Wants ‘People to Come Back Home,’” 10 August 2001, Pacific Daily News: 3A.

30For more information on the number of Hispanic Members by Congress, see Appendix A: Hispanic-American Representatives, Senators, Delegates, and Resident Commissioners by Congress, 1822–2012.

31Barbara Sinclair, Legislators, Leaders, and Lawmaking: The U.S. House of Representatives in the Postreform Era (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995): 82.

32See Robin Kolodny, Pursuing Majorities: Congressional Committees in American Politics (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).

33Politics in America, 1982 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1983): 119; Almanac of American Politics, 1990 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal, Inc., 1991): 118.

34David W. Rohde, Parties and Leaders in the Postreform House (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991): 86.

35Bill Richardson with Michael Ruby, Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007): 106, 110–118.

36Almanac of American Politics, 2010 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal, Inc., 2011): 221; Jennifer Yachnin, “Becerra Takes Rare Tack in Caucus Race,” 25 September 2006, Roll Call: 1; Carl Hulse, “Pelosi Names Maryland Congressman to Lead Democratic Campaign Efforts,” 20 December 2006, New York Times: A27; “Official Biography of Xavier Becerra,” php?option=com_content&view=article&id=13&Itemid=16 (accessed 29 May 2012).

37Emily Pierce, “A Super Day; Menendez Rises, Shines,” 28 August 2008, Roll Call: 36; David M. Herszenhorn, “Schumer Out, Menendez In,” 25 November 2008, New York Times: 20.

38Anita Kumar, “Martinez Steps Up to Top GOP Role,” 20 January 2007, St. Petersburg Times: 5A; Lesley Clark, “Some in GOP Oppose Martinez,” 17 January 2007, Miami Herald: A3.

39Garrison Nelson, ed., Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1947–1992, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1994): 1007–1008.

40See Appendix C: Hispanic-American Members’ Committee Assignments (Standing, Joint,Select) in the U.S. House and Senate, 1822–2012.

41Christopher J. Deering and Steven S. Smith, Committees in Congress, 3d ed. (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1997): 63–72.

42See Appendix C. Several individuals served on more than one prestige committee.

43Bree Hocking, “Bonilla: A ‘Quiet Giant,’” 29 November 2004, Roll Call: n.p.; Lizette Alvarez, “Honoring ’95 Vow, House Republicans Replace 13 Chiefs,” 5 January 2001, New York Times: A1; Ben Pershing and John Bresnahan, “GOP Fills Panel Seats,” 8 January 2001, Roll Call: n.p.; Gary Martin, “Texan Tops Agriculture Panel; Bonilla to Head Subcommittee,” 6 January 2001, San Antonio Express-News: 15A. Edward Roybal of California was also a “cardinal,” chairing the Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government Committee from 1981 to 1993. As he was first elected in 1963, he is not included in this discussion.

44See Appendix E: Hispanic-American Chairs of Subcommittees of Standing and SelectCommittees in the U.S. House and Senate, 1949–2012.

45Deering and Smith, Committees in Congress: 80.

46See Appendix C.

47See Appendix C.