Thursday, December 17, 2009

Faleomavaega Humiliated

Delegate Faleomavaega suffered a huge embarrassment this week by not being invited to be a part of the Congressional delegation to the Copenhagen global warming talks. Why is that a humiliation? First, some background.

For years Faleomavaega limped along at home with declining popularity at the ballot box, in recent years repeatedly being forced into runoffs so much that he got Congress to amend the American Samoa voting statute to allow victory by plurality.

Not last year, however. In 2008 he won by a huge landslide 60%-35% over his nearest opponent. Why the reversal of fortune? He argued to voters that to defeat him now made no sense because he was on the verge of acquiring real influence for the first time in his career.

For his firm two terms, his agenda was blocked by an unfriendly White House controlled by the other party. In his third term, his party controlled both the White House and Congress but he was still very junior and further handicapped himself by proposing such strange legislation as the creation of four seats in Congress to be reserved for Native Americans (an idea ridiculed in the respected Almanac of American Politics as one of the worst proposals ever made).

Then, for the next 12 years, Faleomavaega toiled in the wilderness as a member of the Minority and had to content himself with traveling to various nooks and crannies around the world (even including two visits to the remote Torres Strait Islands!).

But by 2006, however, the Republican Party started to implode nationally, with President Bush’s popularity declining rapidly after Hurricane Katrina and the continuing war in Iraq, while his party mates in Congress were dealing with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

So, it seems almost inevitable now that Democrats would recapture control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Faleomavaega’s seniority produced a subcommittee chairmanship. Because the U.S. Constitution vests in the president sole power over foreign policy, House Democrat leaders must be thankful that Faleomavaega’s interest lies in foreign policy, so they could give him a chairmanship on the Foreign Affairs Committee with little authority or ability to do damage. As chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment, he could make a lot of noise but not cause much injury. By adding global environmental issues to his portfolio, the leaders also could keep him traveling and out of their hair in Washington. What little noise he could make would not be heard by President Bush, who just ignored him as he was winding down his presidency.

Then came 2008 and Faleomavaega took a huge political gamble in backing Hawaii-born Sen. Barack Obama over N.Y. Senator Hillary Clinton early in the campaign season when Clinton still was favored to win the Democrat nomination for president. To do so, at home he also had to buck his own party, which was backing Clinton. He even stayed away from the local caucus that picked national conventional delegates. But he did show up in Hawaii for that state’s delegate selection process, even appearing on stage with Obama’s half-sister, who lives in Hawaii.

Election night 2008 must have been the most satisfying of his career. Not only did he win his own big victory, but Obama won as well and Democrats increased their majorities in the House and Senate, eventually gaining a filibuster-proof majority in the latter. Moreover, with the ailing Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) stepping aside, Faleomavaega’s closest Senate ally, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), soon took over the chairmanship of the all-powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. At the same time, the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) removed from the scene a fierce protector of the minimum wage escalator law for American Samoa.

So, by the time of Obama’s inauguration, the ingredients were all there for Faleomavaega to enjoy unprecedented power and influence for the first time in his career. Indeed, having backed Obama so early, he now was in a position to ride the coattails of Obama’s first-year popularity to bring all sorts of new benefits to his economically struggling territory. It seemed his alliance with Obama also would be reinforced by his closest allies in Congress: Nancy Pelosi and George Miller.

Faleomavaega was a protégé of the late U.S. Rep. Philip Burton (D-CA), under whom he worked on Capitol Hill and who crafted and rammed through the House legislation to create a non-voting delegate seat for American Samoa, tailoring it for Faleomavaega. Burton even strong armed the governor to give Faleomavaega a job back home so he could build a base to run for Congress.

At the same time Burton was mentoring Faleomavaega, he also was grooming two young, left-wing California politicians for future office: Nancy Pelosi and George Miller. The two now have risen to leadership in the House, with Pelosi attaining the speakership and Miller becoming Chairman of the powerful House Education and Labor Committee. Miller also is said to be Pelosi’s closest adviser in the House. Faleomavaega has known both of them since his days as a Burton staffer and boasts of them being his closest allies in the House.

So, talk about all the stars lining up right, it could hardly have been a more perfect environment in which Faleomavaega could flex his legislative and political muscles. But something has gone awry. Nothing seems to be going his way, either in the administration or in Congress.

The first warning sign that the emperor might not have any clothes came as early as the Democrat takeover of the House after the 2006 election. House Democrats made it clear that their first priority after taking power would be to raise the minimum wage. In fact, Pelosi announced that this measure and other priorities would be addressed in the first 100 hours of the Democrat majority, in contrast with the Republicans’ first 100 days program in 1995. Even before taking office, goaded by a Republican backbencher, Pelosi announced American Samoa would be included in the minimum wage raise and ordered George Miller to incorporate it into what would become H.R. 2.

Although virtually all Democrats and Republicans alike were in their seats—either to advance or protect their interests--when Congress was gaveled into order in early January, 2007, Faleomavaega again was off traveling. By the time he scooted back to town, the damage had been done and the new wage provision was adopted by the House.

A further sign that he might not enjoy the influence with Pelosi he touted came early this year, when the speaker led a delegation to China to discuss environmental issues and to Indonesia, where Faleomavaega has been very vocal on the question of Papuan self-determination. Despite the jurisdiction of his subcommittee, Pelosi did not include him in the delegation either to China or Indonesia.

Also early in the year, Faleomavaega’s name was missing in the list of congressional endorsements for Tony Babauta to be assistant secretary of Interior for insular affairs, the key federal agency through which so much of the aid to American Samoa flows. Even though Babauta was not being endorsed by the (by far) most senior territorial delegate, Obama nominated Babauta for the job and the Senate confirmed him.

So, is it any surprise that when the Speaker announced the composition of her delegation to the U.N. Copenhagen conference on climate change,, Faleomavaega was not on it? Earlier this week, National Journal said "If the CODEL [congressional delegation] is the roughly 16 or so that has been rumored, it would be one of the largest international congressional gatherings since the U.N. was founded in 1945.” Well, it was actually 21 members, but the chairman of the foreign affairs subcommittee with responsibility for global environmental issues was left out. There could hardly be any more important global environmental issue that climate change and there could hardly be a more important conference than the one at Copenhagen, but Faleomavaega is not part of the official congressional delegation. Oh, perhaps he will show up anyway—we wouldn’t be surprised—but everyone still will know the speaker passed him over.

If Faleomavaega were hoping the prestige of being in the Speaker’s entourage would divert attention from the fact that both Obama and members of his own party in the House have signaled that his legislation to preserve the territory’s tuna industry was going nowhere, he was sadly mistaken, because the Speaker gave him no cover. Thus, as he rises in seniority, the lack of esteem in which he is held in Washington becomes ever more obvious and each humiliation looms larger than the last. This is the biggest one to date.

As usual, though, it seems hardly to matter at home, where his loyal fans appear to be willing to settle for him “trying hard,” while his sister-in-law who is an editor at the territory’s only daily newspaper makes sure this sort of story never makes it into print. The people have no clue the ground that has been lost in Washington over the past 20 years. And so it goes.


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