Thursday, April 12, 2012

Faleomavaega and the Myth of Seniority

Earlier this week, in a Radio New Zealand International story about candidates starting to surface to take on Faleomavaega in this year’s election, RNZI correspondent Monica Miller said he would be tough to beat because “He’s very senior now and I think that a lot of people would say that if you were to elect somebody new, they would be faced with a tough time trying to establish themselves in Congress, which seniority counts. And that’s what I think works in his favor, his seniority.”

Whether Miller, a long time Pago Pago-based print and radio journalist who is Western Samoan with some Fijian heritage, is stating her own opinion or reflecting voter sentiment, she is repeating the myth of the value of seniority in Congress that, in Faleomavaega’s case, flies in the face of reality.

In an earlier post, we reported that House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi would face a real dilemma if Faleomavaega were to find himself the most senior Democrat on Foreign Affairs after the election because she would have to decide whether to let such a loose cannon be the party’s chief spokesman in the House on international issues—a prospect that has Democrats and Republicans alike shuddering with trepidation. Even if Democrats remain in the minority, it would be much tougher to dislodge him from his perch once Democrats do regain control of the House in some future election, as they invariably will.

Despite being in poor health in recent years, with difficulty walking after painful foot surgery and slowed by heart surgery, the 69-year-old Faleomavaega shows no sign of retiring or cutting back his travel. Indeed, following his second stop this year in Bahrain, he pushed on to Asia, where he praised Malaysia’s growing democracy in remarks while visiting Kuala Lumpur. According to a Malaysian National News Agency report in yet another round-the-world whirlwind tour that took him nowhere near American Samoa.

None of this travel is likely to score him any points if he finds himself in a position to bid for the top Democrat position on the Foreign Affairs Committee next year, however. Moreover, while seniority is important in choosing committee and subcommittee leadership, it is not the ironclad determining factor it was before the Watergate reforms spearheaded a generation ago in the House, ironically by Faleomavaega’s and Pelosi’s mentor, the late Rep. Phil Burton (D-CA).

In a February 13 New York Times article about the likelihood that redistricting would force out a number of senior members of the California delegation this year, Pelosi had this to say: “There’s a lot to be said about mixing it up generationally, to have a constant invigoration of Congress with new fresh eyes and fresh voices.”

Characterized by the Times as describing seniority as “overrated,” Pelosi went on to say about the California situation: “Yes, we have new people coming in. We have people who won’t be coming back. But in terms of the influence of this state, we have plenty of people here who have standing on issues. She argued, “There are many members who have more seniority than I do, and I was the speaker of the House.”

The top five Democrats on Foreign Affairs could figure in a game of musical chairs if the first man to lose his seat is Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA). Redistricting has forced Berman, the top ranking Democrat on the committee, into an election match up with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), number five on the totem pole. The second ranking member is Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) who has chosen to retire rather than seek re-election in a district significantly altered by redistricting in his state. Faleomavaega ranks third and a fellow member of his class of 1988, Rep. Elliott Engel (D-NY) ranks forth.

Ignoring the fact that Faleomavaega outranks him, yesterday Sherman told a respected congressional newspaper, The Hill, that he would seek the top spot on Foreign Affairs if he defeated Berman in November. Polls currently have Sherman holding a comfortable lead in their race. At the same time, the Hill reported “If Sherman defeats Berman, he is likely to face a challenge from at least one senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Eliott Engel (D-N.Y.), who ranks directly below Sherman in seniority,” saying that he would ‘probably make the run’ if Berman was voted out of Congress.”

Significantly, while noting Faleomavaega’s seniority earlier in the story, The Hill made no mention of that fact when reporting a potential Engel run. Engel actually outranks Sherman both on the committee and in the House while Faleomavaega outranks them both on the committee but is lower ranked than classmate Elliott in the caucus by reason of the alphabet. However, it is clear from these stories that no one sees Faleomavaega’s seniority as being of any consequence: not Pelosi, not Sherman and not Engel.

Just as Asia-Pacific Caucus Chairman Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) passed over his long time Vice Chairman Faleomaveaga to back freshman Rep, Judy Chu (D-CA) as his Caucus leadership successor (with Faleomavaega moving to the back bench to be replaced ironically by his much more junior fellow Del. Madeleine Bordallo [D-GU]), Faleomavaega seems destined to be passed over once again, this time by either Sherman or Elliott. The Hill also noted that “(t)he powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) [has] declined to weigh in on the race.” Both Elliott and Sherman are Jewish, as is Berman and the retiring Ackerman. AIPAC no doubt would prefer a Jewish chairman with strong ties to Israel, lengthening the odds against Faleomavaega even more.

Of course, none of this ever gets reported by Monica Miller or the territory’s only daily newspaper, Samoa News, where Faleomavaega’s sister-in-law is an editor at the same time she is a member of the U.S. Democratic Party’s National Committee. It is unclear if Miller or anyone at the paper follows this blog but readers are encouraged to send them the link to this story with our pleas for them to stop touting Faleomavaega’s seniority. And please pass this message to his campaign opponents as well: Faleomavaega has gone as far as his seniority is going to take him in Congress. He is not going to be the full committee ranking member or chairman and ought not even to try. If you want proof, challenge him to produce a letter from Pelosi committing her support to him because of his seniority. That letter will not come.

He has as high a pension as he is going to get, he is not going to have any influence on policy because his party is going to remain in the minority at least until he is into his 70s, he already has lost his bid to be chairman of the Asia-Pacific Caucus and the ProPublica story about his connections to a Bahrain and Kazahkstan lobbyist threaten to damage what little standing he does have (with a second instalment published just yesterday).

Rick Santorum got out of the Republican presidential race because he saw the handwriting on the wall. There is still time for Faleomavaega to retire gracefully rather than face the humiliation of being passed over for the full committee chairmanship he has coveted for 20 years. He can't influence policy and he can't make any more money. Why is he hanging on? There surely is a nice cushy, well paying job waiting for him at the Kazakhstan-Bahrain lobbyist’s office while he also collects his nice full pension.

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