Monday, February 1, 2010

Faleomavaega Escapes Local Scrutiny Again

The hands of Lisa Williams must be raw from all the high fives she gets from other staff when the local media lets her boss Faleomavaega skate out of yet more difficulty in trying to explain how American Samoa will fare under national policies being considered. Williams, who is Faleomavaega’s chief press aide, also is his chief of staff, top legislative assistant and, with her six-figure salary partly paid by the Foreign Affairs Committee, his chief foreign policy adviser as well. Some say she performs other services for Faleomavaega as well but that’s a story for another day.

Since Faleomavaega gets mainly positive coverage in the local media in American Samoa, you would have to say Williams well earns her hefty salary. But you would have to consider that it isn’t a fair fight in the first place. American Samoa has two newspapers. One is more of a community newspaper that comes out three times a week and does not have the resources to do much more than run his press releases. The larger, daily, newspaper, Samoa News, is an Associated Press affiliate and does have the resources but it, too, contents itself largely with running Faleomavaega’s releases. He is also helped by the fact that his sister-in-law is one of the paper’s editors.

The single television station is government-owned and has an evening newscast that largely ignores the delegate. Only one of the local radio stations has a local news operation. It, too, pretty much runs his releases. Another station gives the delegate an hour each week for a show with content of his own choosing, so a sitting member of Congress could hardly have a sweeter deal than that. No wonder Williams has the time to do multiple jobs at once. She hardly has to break a sweat in dealing with the local press and, somewhat surprisingly, no one in the national press has paid much attention to Faleomavaega, even though fewer than 8,000 people every two years have made it possible for him to rise in Congress to the point at which he now is only two heartbeats away from chairing the House Foreign Affairs Committee. That would make him ostensibly a key shaper of American Foreign Policy, as frightening as that thought would be.

However, as Faleomavaega has demonstrated over an over again, he is no team player and has a foreign policy of his own, even if no one can figure out what it is. Consistency has never been his strongest suit. So, even though he is a protege of the late Rep. Phil Burton, the same San Francisco congressman who mentored Nancy Pelosi and George Miller, it is unlikely they will ever put the House’s foreign affairs machinery into his unstable hands. Evidence? Pelosi took a delegation to China last year to discuss climate change but did not include Eni, even though his subcommittee has jurisdiction over China and global environmental issues. She also did not put him on her massive delegation to Copenhagen for international global warming talks.

If anything, Faleomavaega’s foreign policy seems to be pro-dictator. He famously toasted Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi a couple of years ago on one of his multiple trip to Vietnam and in January this year he helped the local Cambodia Communists celebrate the annual observance of the Vietnam communists’ invasion of Cambodia to topple the Pol Pot government. That gesture was so controversial that the other members of his delegation diplomatically absented themselves from the occasion.

He is so loved in Kazakhstan that the dictator there (who also held the job as a Communist during Soviet times) even took out an advertisement in the Washington Post to praise one of his several visits to the central Asian country. He also has turned in recent years from being a friend of Taiwan to being an ardent backer of the regime in Beijing and--in a demonstration it is not just communists he adores--he has become the chief defender of Fiji’s military dictatorship, in the process condemning (and alienating) Australia and New Zealand. He has no fans in Jakarta because of his attempts to force Indonesia to give up its West Papua province, they are not wild about him in Ankara because of his stance on Armenian genocide and Tokyo is not pleased about his demands that Japan compensate World War II Korean sex slaves.

But how much of all this do the people know about in American Samoa? None. Unless he puts it in a press release, the local media will not touch it. And the voters cheer him on even if members of his own party in Washington wish he would just go away. There always are hopes because his health has been in general decline for years and at age 67 he can’t hope to go on much longer. He can hardly walk, has had major heart surgery and is seriously overweight. His travel schedule is so brutal, that he can be seen nodding off to sleep in congressional hearings on occasions when he is passing through Washington.

One occasion in Washington he never misses is the annual State of the Union address. Viewers always know he is there because he is one of those members who shows up in the House chamber hours early on the day of the speech so he can assure himself a seat on the aisle the president comes down as he makes his way to the podium. That way he can shake hands with the president and be seen on television. Except this year.

Adorned with his trademark bolo tie (the only member of the House who does not regularly wear a standard necktie--not even those members with Indian blood wear the bolo), he could be seen this year sitting next to his freshman colleague from the Northern Marianas on a separate aisle. Perhaps he wanted some distance after having blasted Obama last week for not ordering Secretary of State to hold a summit with island leaders while she was in the region.

So, how did he escape local scrutiny again? Well, at the State of Union, Obama asked Congress to impose a three-year spending freeze on all discretionary domestic programs. The story of the speech was carried in Samoa News but buried in the paper and no attempt was made to tie the request to the local situation. A freeze would be significant if not fatal to the local economy because Faleomavaega is asking for a $25 million subsidy to offset mandated wage hikes which threaten to force the remaining cannery to pull out. In fact, the canner has asked for only a three-month extension of its tax exemption rather than a year as they await word on what Congress is willing to provide.

Not a word out of anyone as to what effect the spending freeze would have on Eni’s $25 million request. And there is no evidence Samoa News took the simple and logical step of asking him, either by phone or by e-mail or through Lisa Williams, what the freeze would mean. Not a word in the paper. Not a single word.

So, today Obama has sent a budget request to Congress for the fiscal year that begins October 1 (fiscal year 2011). It is in the amount of 3.8 trillion dollars. Now that the budget has been made public, the various agencies can talk about their programs. If not to Faleomavaega (who may be traveling), Samoa News could make a simple call to the director of the Office of Insular Affairs at Interior, a Samoan, or to the desk officer, also a Samoan, or to the director of OIA’s budget office to ask “how much has been included to fund Faleomavaega’s tiny request of $25 million?” That’s $25,000,000 out of a budget of $3.8 trillion. Not billion, but trillion!

Don’t hold your breath. Most likely Samoa News and the radio station will wait for his press handout in which he will brag once again how he helped prevent the budget cutters from whacking away at the $23 million subsidy it provides the local government for its operations and $10 million for capital improvements, even though those amounts have stayed at the same level the whole time he has been in office while the population has doubled. Lisa Williams can pull last year’s release out of the file, update it, send it off to Pago Pago and high five the staff again as she lights up her victory cigar.

We are betting there is NO money in the Interior budget for Faleomavaega’s little scheme, which should once and for all convince all doubters that his bill is going nowhere at all. Perhaps his attack on Clinton and Obama last week was meant to give him an excuse for not delivering: retaliation by Obama for him “standing up for the little guy.”

Stay tuned.

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