Sunday, June 1, 2014

Will Faleomavaega Join the Old Bulls Leaving Congress?

Everyone knows that Faleomavaega is a sick man. He has said so himself. Just before the 2012 election Radio New Zealand International reported that he freely admitted that he “has had a double by-pass heart surgery, had his appendix taken out, underwent a knee operation, both his eyes are lasered with artificial lenses and he had high blood pressure, gout and Type 2 Diabetes. He adds it's likely he has been exposed to the deadly chemical dioxin found in Agent Orange while he served in Vietnam."

But, while admitting that he has new health problems from which he is still recovering, he has not yet been as forthcoming about them as he was about his earlier ailments nor has he announced whether he will seek re-election this fall.

Nonetheless, we have clues to the answers to both questions. His office in the few statements made has referred to his “rehabilitation,” a word normally used in connection with a stroke. Indeed, there is widespread belief he suffered two strokes last October. Although he has resumed “limited” office hours, he has skipped countless hearings and caucus meetings since he return. While he has made three appearances on the Floor of the U.S. House of Representatives where he has spoken without sign of impairment, there is anecdotal evidence that he may be suffering residual brain damage even if his motor skills have fully recovered.

On the question of re-election, the Federal Election Committee reports that his campaign committee is functioning and he has raised $40,000 towards re-election just since taking ill. There is no law, just tradition, that requires him to make any formal announcement. However, he has simply filed the required paperwork before without any formal announcement or campaign kickoff event without any impact on his votes and could do so again. So we will have to keep a close eye on our election office to see if and when he or someone on his behalf picks up a packet containing the petitions that must be circulated and filed before he formally becomes a candidate. The filing period opens July 14 and closes September 2

Not only has he missed many normal functions of participating in Congress, there is no evidence Faleomavaega has traveled since becoming ill, other than evacuation from Tutuila to Honolulu, where he was hospitalized at Tripler Hospital, then quietly moved to the Mainland for additional treatment in the west (some say at his residence in Utah; others say at a VA rehab facility in California; perhaps both). Then he returned to Washington in late winter and has remained there ever since. It is also said that his wife, who for many years has lived apart from him first in Nevada and now Utah, has returned to Washington to care for him.

If, indeed, he suffered one or more strokes, it would account for why there is no evidence he has traveled at all by air since returning to Washington. He may be under doctor's orders. We do know that he did not return for Flag Day or Memorial Day, two occasions that no politician ordinarily would dare miss in an Election year. So everyone is waiting to see when he will make his re-appearance. Will he pick up and/or file his own papers? Will he have a campaign kickoff event? Will he participate in candidate debates? Will he run a Curley/Spellman/Johnson type of campaign (James Michael Curley won election in Boston while in prison; Gladys Spellman won in Maryland while in a coma; Tim Johnson won a SD senate seat while hehabing from a stroke)?  Or will he wait as long as possible to assess his health then quietly retire if he, his family, friends, allies and/or doctors decide he no longer is up to the job?

Frankly, one has to wonder why he would want to continue. He is in the Minority and no one believes the Democrats have any chance of resuming control of the House this fall. The earliest date most analysts believe the Democrats can come back is in 2022 after redistricting when Faleomavaega would be pushing 80.  In fact, if anything all indications are that Republicans will gain additional House seats and perhaps enough Senate seats to gain control of the Senate in November. Even in the Majority he, as a non-voting delegate, would have very little opportunity to accomplish very much. Moreover, continuing health problems may force him to curtail if not curtail if not eliminate his extensive foreign travel. Over the past quarter century, it would come as no surprise to find that he has traveled more miles than any other Member of Congress even without counting the miles traveling back and forth from American Samoa.

Unlike the other delegates, he has no legislative record of which to speak and little prospect of building one. His signature bill, the so-called ASPIRE Act, introduced when his party controlled the House, never got reported out of subcommittee and even members of his own party spoke against it in a hearing. Despite his seniority, he was denied the Ranking Member position on the full Foreign Affairs Committee, authority over global environment was stripped from the subcommittee, he has been stripped of his vote in the House Committee of the Whole and the Clerk no longer reports his seniority or that of the other delegates—all Democrats—in the House seniority list. It is shown separately at the end of the list. He also was passed over in favor of a freshmen legislator for the chairmanship of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus despite having served loyally for a number of years as vice chairman to Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA). Adding insult to injury, his place as vice chairman went to another delegate, Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo of Guam.

Despite being on Tutuila at a time then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was in Samoa meeting with the region's foreign ministers, he did not travel over there, even though he was chairman of the Asia Pacific subcommittee at the time, because Rice declined to give him an opportunity to address the gathering. And when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came through Pago Pago a couple of years ago, she ignored his plea on Cambodian debt relief while granting the then-Governor (who will seek to replace him this fall) was granted his request to allow American Samoa to have official observer status at the Pacific Islands Forum in a major reversal of U.S. policy.

His extensive travels over the years frequently have taken him to Bangkok, home of the parent company of Chicken of the Sea brand tuna and Seoul, home of StarKist's parent company. Although he touted those visits as opportunities to meet with American Samoa;s major private sector employers, Chicken of the Sea closed its plant and StarKist's long-term future remains in as much doubt as Faleomavaega's ability to get legislation to protect the company's tax advantages and wage structure. One trip he missed was a U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen even though the global environment was under his subcommittee's jurisdiction at the time. Even though he was chairman, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)--whose political action committee once gave him $10,000 towards re-election (she wanted his caucus vote for Leader)—did not include him in her 21-Member delegation. 

He once got Pelosi to show up at a summit of Pacific Leaders in Washington only to have that triumph go sour when the then-Speaker showed up over a half hour late, annoying the heads of government and others alike, all trapped in an auditorium for the occasion,  They all were there for an evening of food and entertainment--to which Pelosi's appearance was a hastily arranged add-on.

More recently, his continued lack of influence was underscored by President Obama's decision to pick Esther Kia'aina over his choice, Nikolao Pula, as assistant secretary of Interior for insular affairs and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned less than two days after Faleomavaega took to the House Floor to urge him to stay. Indeed, although Faleomavaeva was one of Obama's earliest supporters in his first run for president, there is no evidence Obama ever has returned the favor. Oh yes, Faleomavaega has lots of pictures with the president, but so does every Member of Congress—Republican and Democrat alike. It comes with the job.  One has to wonder if he realizes he is telegraphing his irrelevance by frequently punctuating his remarks with "I've been saying for years . . . " (even if he does not conclude with "but no one listens to me").

He has gone as far as his seniority will take him. Acquiring more now will not advance him further, get him a better office or increase his pension, which topped out at 20 years of service 2009. So why does he go on? We can only surmise that the limelight must continue to outweigh the humiliations, particularly since neither the local media nor his political opponents make any concerted effort to address his record or prospects for future success in Congress. Seemingly, as long as he can continue to flash his pe'a, strum his ukulele, carry a tune and dance, and have enough money to buy a boatload of radio and newspaper advertisements that cleverly list all the federal money that comes to the territory while only implying but being careful specifically not to claim it is due to him, as well feed the voters, there will be enough voters to get him re-elected.

One of the values of seniority is building friendships and alliances to help a Member reach his legislative goals. Much of Faleomavaega's investment in that relationship building process has been lost in the past three years with the retirement of Sen. Dan Akaka (D-HI), the death of Sen. Dan Inouye (D-HI) and the defeat of then-Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA), whose re-nomination Faleomavaega unsuccessfully backed in 2012. The wave of Old Bulls going out has continued unabated this year with the announced retirements of Reps. John Dingell (D-MI), George Miller (D-CA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), all Faleomavaega allies with whom he serves for many years a fellow member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

The signs are present that other senior Members also may be on their way out. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) has a tough primary challenge this month and Rep. Nick Joe Rahall (D-WV), a Faleomavaega ally who was Ranking Democrat on House Natural Resources, is thought to be in danger of losing his seat in November. All of the aforementioned Members are ex-Members who have or had seniority substantially exceeding Faleomavaega's 13 terms.

Dingell, the longest serving person in the history of the House, will be joined in retirement by Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), at 91 the oldest person ever to have served in the House. Hall, also the last World War II veteran in Congress, was defeated for renomination last week and the man who beat him said a long career of distinguished service does not entitle a person to a lifetime seat in the House. Watch this video interview for his comments.

Once again, do not expect our local media to present this kind of analysis to the voters for their consideration. However, even if others are hesitant to address the ailing delegate's shortcomings, former governor Togiola is not likely to be so shy. Faleomavaega realizes this so perhaps it will given him impetus he needs to pull the plug and go the way of the Old Bulls before the voters finally show him the door.

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