By Kris Kitto - 11/03/09 12:08 AM EST
She then became Donna Christensen, the leader of the CBC’s national town hall meeting on energy policy.
In cases like this, when the show must go on, Christensen’s colleagues have come to rely on her. As one of the six non-voting delegates in the House, she is often the member of Congress who vamps during interrupted committee hearings, entertains congressional witnesses left hanging and fills in for vanished chairmen.
“Sometimes you go to be supportive, and you end up running the whole thing,” she says.
It’s what she and her delegate colleagues might see as one of the few benefits of having non-voting status. When other House members have to drop everything and head to the floor at the sound of the voting bells, delegates get the gift of a few free minutes in their otherwise packed schedules. Many of them head to the floor anyway, to engage in face-to-face politicking, but others, like Del. Gregorio “Kilili” Sablan (I-Northern Mariana Islands), see a late-afternoon vote, for example, as an opportune time to make calls back to their far-off districts or spend extra time with constituents.
Christensen says she likes to take advantage of an abrupt interruption in a committee hearing to start a one-on-one conversation with the often high-powered witnesses.
“Sometimes it’s given me an opportunity to speak to a [Cabinet] secretary or somebody who’s testifying, and I get face-time to speak about my issues,” she says.
While delegates don’t get to vote on House legislation, they do have votes in committees and in the Committee of the Whole (a parliamentary tactic in which the entire House becomes a congressional committee in order to expedite certain floor procedures).
Christensen, Sablan, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-Puerto Rico) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) all say they often go to the floor during votes to get business done.
“It’s a great way to talk to [other members] without having to use the phone,” Sablan says. “And most of the time, they give you their time.”
Sablan, who this Congress became the first non-voting delegate from the Northern Mariana Islands, says he has spent much of his floor time thus far introducing himself to other lawmakers and speaking with senior members he admires. He was flattered when House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) approached him on the floor to ask him to co-sponsor a bill on online gambling.
“I was [like], ‘Wow,’ ” Sablan says.
He doesn’t go to every vote. Sablan says he sometimes uses time during an evening vote to make calls back to his district, which is 14 hours ahead of Washington.
Pierluisi, also in his first term, says he will sometimes stay in Puerto Rico longer rather than rush back to Washington for Monday or Tuesday evening votes.
Otherwise, he says, his colleagues might actually think he votes because he’s on the floor so often. He has spent most of his floor time to date gathering co-sponsors for his bill to call for a plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s political status. He estimates he’s spoken to at least 250 members to get the bill’s 182 supporters.
He sits at the back of the floor, he says, to get a good view of the chamber.
“It’s a good watch post,” he says. “Then I see my targets and approach them on any basis.”
“I’m a former trial attorney, arbiter and mediator, so I kind of liked that,” he says. “You’re seeing the floor, and the view is different.”
Norton, who has represented the District of Columbia for 18 years, says her colleagues have gotten so used to seeing her come and go to the floor that many have forgotten she doesn’t cast a vote.
“Most people, when the bell rings, forget and say, ‘Eleanor, you’ve only got three minutes,’ ” she says.
Robert Underwood, a former Democratic delegate for Guam, recalled in an e-mail that there would be times he would be walking away from the House floor while his colleagues were heading toward it, and they would yell at him, “Hey, Underwood, you are going the wrong way.”
Christensen, too, sees the benefit of visiting the House floor frequently and says she will often go to the chamber during critical votes (she stuck around for the three-hour Medicare Part D prescription drug vote in November 2003).
But the seven-term delegate has developed something of an expertise in filling in for her colleagues, beginning during her early days in Congress, and recognizes those situations for their potential in accruing political capital. She recalls attending a joint Senate-House hearing on the Indian Trust Fund in her first term. During the meeting, both the Senate and the House called for votes at the same time. She ended up running the entire rest of the hearing, even through the questioning.
“I knew nothing about the subject,” she says, recalling that staff helped her get through it.
“You end up knowing how to fill in,” Christensen says.
Her go-to trick? Christensen says she quickly learned the utility of the phrase, “I’ll take that back to the members.”