Friday, March 16, 2012

Ackerman Exit Boosts Faleomavaega

The unexpected retirement of Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-NY) moves Faleomavaega a step closer to his dream of one day chairing the full House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Last year we wrote that, in the wake of congressional redistricting, a “perfect storm” might develop that would catapult the traveling delegate into the panel’s top slot. In order for Faleomavaega to succeed, two more senior members of the committee would need to leave Congress, Democrats would need to recapture control of the House and Nancy Pelosi would need to approve the unprecedented step of elevating into a full committee chairmanship a non-voting delegate from a small territory.

Moreover, in so doing, she would be handing the gavel to someone who has been a loose cannon over the course of his House tenure. At a time of great, sensitive, international issues, it is doubted that an outspoken House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman would be welcome by a White House controlled by either party. Many of Faleomavaega’s antics are recounted elsewhere in this blog but just to give an example, after the killing of Osama Bin Laden Faleomavaega rose up on the House floor to demand that President Obama and then-CIA Director Leon Panetta apologize to native Americans for using “Geronimo” as a code word in the operation: Needless to say, he was ignored. Many think he is nuts.

When the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) was riding high with lobbyist Jack Abramoff blocking Congressional efforts to curb labor abuses and raise wages in those islands, island leaders believed they had all the protection they needed. Abramoff was a well connected lobbyist with enormous influence over powerful Republicans who had say over the issues. The chief detractor in the House from his days as Chairman and later Ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee—which has jurisdiction over insular issues—was Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Abramoff for years routinely rubbed Miller’s nose in the dirt over the Marianas.

In order for the situation to turn sour for the CNMI, another “perfect storm” would need to come together. As long as Abramoff continued to ride high, the Republicans remained in power in the House and Miller was not involved in the issues at hand, all would be well. And so it looked in early 2005 after George W. Bush was returned to office and Miller left the top ranking slot on Natural Resources for the same position on the Education and Labor Committee.

But Hurricane Katrina came along and the voters took it out on Republicans in mid-term elections, sweeping the Democrats back into control of the House and making Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) the speaker. Her closest confidant in the House was none other than fellow San Francisco Democrat Miller, who became chairman of the Education and Labor Committee.

A year before the midterm, CNMI voters elected as governor Benigno Fitial, the chief defender of the Abramoff strategy and the new CNMI House installed as speaker former governor Froilan Tenorio, the man who had hired Abramoff in the first place. While that was happening, Abramoff’s lobbying empire was beginning to unravel. So, by Christmas 2006, the Republican majority was on its way out, Bush was gravely weakened by Katrina and Iraq, and Miller, with a long memory of how he was batted about by Abramoff and those behind him on Saipan, was coming into the chairmanship of the committee that had jurisdiction over minimum wage.

All the elements of the perfect storm were in place and within days of taking control of the House, Miller offered a bill (H.R. 2) to apply federal minimum wage to the CNMI. When is sailed through Congress, a weakened Bush meekly signed it. So, as unlikely as all of those pieces coming together might have seemed in early 2005, they all indeed came together just two years later and the rest is history.

Something similar would have to happen for Faleomavaega to become Committee chairman. It seemed inconceivable a year go with Republicans having swept into power with the largest majority they had enjoyed since the 1920s and the two Democrats ahead of Faleomavaega showing no sign of getting out of the way any time soon.

However, as we pointed out in our earlier blog, this is a redistricting year and all the congressional boundaries are being redrawn to account for population shifts. Both Ackerman and Berman had been through this process in the past and had weathered redistricting well thanks to friendly legislatures drawing new lines favorable to incumbents.

But the prefect storm began to build as California adopted a new redistricting system conducted by an independent, non-partisan commission rather than the Democrat-controlled legislature. Meanwhile in New York, Republicans won control of the state senate, which meant compromise would be necessary in drawing the lines, which had to account for the loss of two seats. The compromise was that one Republican seat in upstate New York and one in the New York City metropolitan area would be eliminated.

California’s new map threw Berman into a district with his colleague Brad Sherman (D) and they are in a survival struggle that will be playing out in the state primary in June. The winner is almost assured victory in November. At the same time, while New York eliminated Ackerman’s district, it created an open safe seat nearby to which he could have moved easily. It seemed certain he would do so until his surprise announcement yesterday that he would retire rather than have to face an almost entirely new set of constituents.

So, Ackerman is gone and Berman could be defeated in June. Meanwhile, Democrats have growing optimism that they can win back the House in November. If that whole perfect storm comes together, the only obstacle remaining for Faleomavaega, assuming he wins his own re-election, would be to win Pelosi’s backing to become chairman.

People in Washington’s foreign affairs interest community should be alarmed at the prospect of a Faleomavaega chairmanship. Be afraid; be very, very afraid. What they should be doing is massing campaign contributions to try to save Berman, defeat Faleomavaega, try to influence Pelosi and try to shore up the Republican majority. The cheapest way to solve the problem is to defeat Faleomavaega but at this juncture, no viable candidate has stepped forward to oppose him.

As hard as it may be to believe, particularly given his Faleomavaega’s penchant for bomb throwing, he has never really been vetted or profiled by the mainstream press, even though he did have a four-year stint as the Asia-Pacific subcommittee chairman. It is true that Foreign Affairs is not considered a major committee in the House and the Asia-Pacific panel is one of the least important on the Committee, but it still is surprising so little is known about this man and where he would take the committee if he took charge.

While making contributions to various campaigns to minimize negative outcomes, someone ought to encourage the international affairs media to do an in-depth profile of Faleomavaega in hopes of persuading a potential incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi to think twice before handing him the gavel.

For his part Faleomavaega continues on his merry way, again last week visiting Fiji. There does not appear to be a dictator, tyrant, despot, autocrat or strongman that Faleomavaega does not like. In recent years he has shown a particular fondness for the rulers of Bahrain, Kazakhstan and Fiji. Precisely what he thought he was accomplishing on this trip to Fiji is unclear but just days after his departure strongman Bainimarama announced the abolishment of the Great Council of Chiefs. Any relationship? Hard to say but Faleomavaega in the past has proposed election of members of the American Samoa Senate, which is a body composed of traditional leaders selected by county chiefs. You can draw your own conclusions.

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